- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday defiantly scolded opponents of his sweeping health care reform proposal, saying “the time for bickering is over, the time for games has passed. Now is the season for action.”

And that was aimed just at members of his own party.

In fact, nearly his entire speech was targeted directly at Democrats, who, despite massive majorities in both the House and the Senate, have been at loggerheads over just how to overhaul America’s health care system.

Having misplayed the sweltering summer, when conservatives gathered force and turned town halls across the country into angry tutorials on the expansive - and expensive - reform plan, Mr. Obama has expended nearly all of his once-boundless political capital and has been reduced to begging his own party to find consensus - any consensus.

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He used fear: “More families will go bankrupt … more will die”; he used shame: “Too many Americans [are] counting on us to succeed”; he blamed politics: “Out of this blizzard of charges and countercharges, confusion has reigned.”

He all but begged. “If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open,” the president said, looking out on more than 100 House Democrats who simply cannot agree on how to move forward.

According to the latest tallies, some 45 moderate Blue Dog Democrats oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, and especially its cost - upward of $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Meanwhile, 60 liberal Democrats oppose the plan if the president jettisons the “public option,” or government-run health care.

In between are libertarian Democrats, some of whom oppose what they see as a power grab, and purely pragmatic Democrats, unconvinced that the federal government can oversee such an enormous undertaking (especially when it could hardly handle the “cash for clunkers” program).

Mr. Obama’s speech appeared to unify Democrats as to their real enemies - not members of their own party, but the Republicans across the aisle - in the joint session of Congress, held in the House chamber. Spilling onto the other side of the aisle, Democrats repeatedly leapt to their feet in standing ovations. At times, the session had the feel of the old-time call-and-response in a boisterous church.

“That’s right,” one Democrat yelled when Mr. Obama vowed that America will provide health care to all.

Republicans were predictably moody. They mumbled loudly throughout, objecting to passages about how the expensive program would be funded. The minority party guffawed when the president sheepishly acknowledged: “There remain some significant details to be ironed out.”

But Republicans were not content to sit quietly, applauding more softly than a gathering of golf fans. At one point, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You lie.” Mr. Obama paused, then continued reading his speech from teleprompters. Several times, more than two dozen Republicans waved copies of a Republican plan at the president.

When Mr. Obama asserted that his plan would not fund health care for illegal immigrants or use federal taxpayer money for abortions, Republicans yelled, “Read the bill.”

And when the president declared that his “public option” of government-run health care would be just that - an option - Republicans shouted, “Right.”

Although Democrats represent Mr. Obama’s biggest challenge right now, the president fed his party plenty of red meat. He derided former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, for her charge that his health care plan would set up “death panels” that decide who gets care and who doesn’t.

“Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible,” he said. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York teetered with laughter.

And he brought whooping cheers from his side of the aisle when he declared: “I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it. … If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.”

Mr. Obama’s serious delivery slipped only occasionally in the speech. He flashed a broad smile when Republicans gave him a rare standing ovation after he outlined a modest pilot program to curb medical malpractice lawsuits, a longtime GOP goal opposed by the powerful trial lawyer lobby, which overwhelmingly backs Democrats.

At that point, Democrats sat quietly.

Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@washingtontimes.com.