Help for Obama's Speech to Congress
The Speech the President Should Give to Congress, September 9, 2009
Good evening, both to you members of Congress assembled here, and fellow Americans in our wider TV and radio audience.
I plan to talk first about health care reform. Then I will make some fresh proposals regarding how to pay for it, since this is a legitimate concern.
A new strategy will kill two birds with one stone. That strategy finds the money for health care reform by curbing wasteful, self-defeating spending on the military — spending that is making us less, not more, safe. Stay tuned.
First, health care:
Last year I promised to do all I could to ensure that all of you — that is, every single American — would be able to get affordable health care. I said elect me President and then hold me accountable.
You did your part. This evening I will give you a preliminary accounting.
But, first a question. How many of you members of Congress do not have affordable health care?
I’m serious. And the nation is curious.
Okay, let’s do it this way. Any Senator or Representative who does not have affordable health care, please rise.
No one is standing up.
Now a more important question: How many of you Senators and Representatives will stand up for legislation that will give ALL Americans essentially the same access to health care that you enjoy?
I’m dead serious. You and I and the
families of members of Congress can get all the health care we need,
while millions of Americans cannot.
Again, please rise if you want everyone to have equal access to quality medical care. Rise if you believe it is wrong to consider some Americans, like us, more equal than others.
Thank you. I invite those of you standing to sit down.
That showing is reassuring — that is, if it is authentic and not just for the TV cameras.
Health care coverage is basically a moral question, isn’t it?
It has something to do with being “your brother’s keeper” (or your sister’s). That expression is from the Bible. So is the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is about health care and being a good neighbor, isn’t it? Let’s see how it may relate to our situation today.
The question posed to Jesus is: Who is my neighbor? In reply, Jesus tells a story. A priest and then a deacon see a badly beaten man lying by the side of the road. One by one, they pass right on by.
A Samaritan, on the other hand, stops when he sees that the traveler is in need of urgent care. After applying first aid, he brings this victim of robbers to an inn to rest and heal. The Samaritan gives the innkeeper money to be used to care for the man.
The Good Samaritan was in no way required to help this total stranger, who had what these days might be called “a pre-existing condition.” But he does so out of a feeling of compassion and solidarity with another human being — his neighbor.
And then he says a beautiful thing. “If more is needed, spend it,” he tells the innkeeper, and promises to pay on his way back for whatever care is needed.
Compassion is what this story is all about — the quality that distinguishes Americans when we are at our best, the virtue about which Thomas Merton wrote this:
“It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things.”
The Good Samaritan himself has the attitude that, in my view, we should all bring to health care. It has to do with compassion for our neighbor. It is what accounts for the encouraging poll results showing that over 70 percent of Americans do want to see everyone have access to good health care. We’ll take a minute or two later to refer back to the Good Samaritan story.
For now, let me speak to those of you who stood just now to show that you wish to stand up for ALL Americans. I would like to assume that ALL those who got up from their seats rose out of conviction, and not just because we are on TV.
I wish I could assume that, but I cannot.
Why? Because some of you and your associates have been deeply engaged in spreading the kind of baseless fear and confusion designed to scuttle any real reform.
Fellow citizens, why would members of Congress choose to “walk right on by,” so to speak? Why would they be sabotaging what they claim to support; namely, an urgent effort to give ALL Americans the opportunity to get the health care they need — and not just us, the privileged?
Follow the money, someone said. And that applies in spades to this situation.
A whole lot of money is at stake. Senior executives of insurance and drug companies do not want to endanger their multimillion-dollar annual salaries — with million-dollar bonuses thrown in for good measure.
They have been able to thwart efforts toward meaningful reform — until now.
They are not physically present in this chamber this evening, but some of their surrogates are. And their money is.
Let me be clear. If Americans knew how much money the insurance and drug industries give to some of you sitting here this evening, they would understand — and be appalled.
Fellow citizens, you may wish to inquire about how much money your Representative and Senators receive from firms with a strong vested interest in preventing meaningful change in a health care system that excludes so many and, still, is so outrageously expensive.
Sad to say, many of you here this evening – unlike the Good Samaritan – choose to “walk on by,” choose to give priority to financing your next election campaign rather than to the health needs of the American people.
You have been setting up straw-man objections to new legislation and then knocking them — and the legislation — down, leaving many of your constituents in confusion.
I served here in Congress. And I know that in this rarified atmosphere it is easy to become convinced that, like the children of Lake Wobegon, all of us are above average — evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Whether above average or not, you cannot plead ignorance. Nor does it require a PhD to recognize as fraudulent the scary gossip that is so widely circulated and so wildly untrue.
You know what I’m talking about; ideas like:
--“Death panels” will decide to get rid of grandma before her time;
--Illegal immigrants will overburden the health care system; or
--Federal funding for abortion is part of the planned legislation.
These are just a few of the diaphanous ghosts being evoked. You can see right through them.
My fellow Americans, NONE, that is NOT ONE, of the draft bills includes any language about “death panels,” or abortion, or benefits for illegal immigrants — as you Representatives and Senators here tonight know full well.
But some here before me this evening are reluctant to make that clear to their constituents. Worse still, some are taking a leading role in spreading the confusion.
Of course, it’s not just money; it’s also politics. I’ve gone out on a limb to get a fair deal for ALL on health care — a hard thing to do. Recent presidents have been thwarted when they took on the challenge I have taken on.
I knew that, and I made that promise to you anyway. It had been 43 years since President Lyndon Johnson successfully pushed through Medicare, and now it’s 44 years. I knew the odds. But a promise is a promise.
Politics? I knew that opposition to reform for crass political reasons would be strong; I never expected it to be so transparent.
Where’s Jim deMint? Ah, there you are, Jim. I want to publicly thank my dear friend and former Senate colleague, the junior Senator from South Carolina, for making crystal clear what motivates him, and many in his party.
On July 17, Senator deMint spoke candidly about how he sees the political stakes. And this is what he said:
“If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
I’ll confess: it’s hard to know what to say to that. Perhaps it would be best, initially, to try to laugh it off. So I’ll borrow from that great musical “Gigi,” where Leslie Caron sings:
"This is my Waterloo, whispers my heart;
"Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte."
But seriously, Jim, this is not about me and losing like Napoleon at Waterloo, as you are hoping. It’s not about winning or losing at all.
For me it’s a matter of keeping a promise — of keeping faith with the America people — and it’s about compassion. And if you and those with you succeed in thwarting reform, the hopes and prayers of millions of Americans without affordable health care will be broken. I will be profoundly disappointed, but not broken.
Moving ahead: As most of you sitting here this evening know, I strongly encouraged the leaders of the relevant congressional committees to do all they could to hammer out a bipartisan bill, thus achieving a win-win solution for which both sides of the aisle could proudly claim credit.
After months of effort they tell me I need to get resigned to the reality that broad bipartisan consensus cannot be achieved, for many of the reasons I mentioned earlier.
It’s no use wasting more time, they say. Not all, but almost all Republicans will vote against any meaningful reform.
We will continue working to persuade Republican lawmakers to vote on the merits of draft legislation and not vote simply to “break” me and embarrass my administration.
But I have decided to move forward and have asked House and Senate leaders to give me a bill to sign before Thanksgiving. The bill I want is quite simple. It will extend insurance for quality health care to ALL Americans. It will have a robust public option to create the kind of competition to bring costs down.
There are other ways to obtain the necessary funds for this kind of health care reform. They do not require leaps of imagination.
I was able to do some reading while on vacation. And I have come to the conclusion that, by any reasonable measure, we are giving too much money to the Pentagon.
We say it is for “defense,” but much of it goes toward a futile effort to maintain a Pax Americana, in the model of Rome and the former British Empire.
I have decided it makes no sense to throw untold billions more into adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have but tenuous relationship to our nation’s security.
Yes, critics will criticize me for changing my mind. And in response I would simply cite Emerson’s dictum: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Some 2,500 years ago, Alexander of Macedonia tried to “prevail” in Afghanistan. He and his army were on their way to China and invaded Afghanistan, only to encounter formidable mountains and even more formidable “militants” — fierce tribes who started whittling away at the flanks of Alexander’s army.
Conferring with his officers, and looking up at those mountains, Alexander decided to change his mind and go back to Asia Minor. That may be why he deserves “the Great” after his name. No foolish consistency there.
The trouble is that in the centuries that followed, the Persians, Indians, Mongols, British, Russians learned nothing from Alexander, preferring foolish consistency before they were driven out of Afghanistan, suffering terrible losses and achieving nothing.
Economists speak of “opportunity costs” — a fancy term for what else one could do with funds, rather squander them on feckless adventures abroad. Well, funding universal health care is one worthy thing we can do…and will do.
The tendency has been to “send in the Marines.” I am going to take a different lesson from the past and send in a Marine — just one.
I imagine few of you know that at a similar juncture President John Kennedy faced with respect to Vietnam, he sent the commandant of the Marines, Gen. David Shoup, to Vietnam with instructions “to look over the ground in Southeast Asia and counsel him.”
Kennedy placed more trust in Shoup than in his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to give him the straight scoop, so to speak.
When he returned, Gen. Shoup reportedly told Kennedy that, unless he was prepared to use a million men in a major drive, the U.S. should pull out before the war got beyond control.
You may have noticed that another Marine, Gen. Charles Krulak, who served as commandant from 1995 to 1999, has expressed “total agreement” with columnist George Will’s assessment in his recent op-ed, “Time to get out of Afghanistan.”
Sounding very much like his predecessor, Gen. Shoup, Gen. Krulak emphasizes that effective counterinsurgency operations would require “hundreds of thousands” additional troops and that our military could not support such a “surge.”
Speaking more generally, Gen. Krulak asks, “What in Afghanistan is deemed in our nation’s vital interest…Who is the enemy?”
Krulak adds that “no desired end state has ever been clearly articulated and no strategy formulated that would lead us to achieve even an ill defined end state.”
Gen. Krulak’s points are well taken. I have come to see that my speechwriter’s clever alliteration “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda” is hardly an actual strategy for Afghanistan — the more so, inasmuch as most of what is left of al-Qaeda’s leadership is now in Pakistan.
Also troubling is the public reply given by special envoy Richard Holbrooke a few weeks ago, when he was asked at a think tank about our specific goal in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke’s answer was “We’ll know it when we see it.” With that kind of goal, I guess it should come as no surprise that Holbrooke also was unable to deliver on my promise on March 27 that there would be “metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable.”
This is not satisfactory. So I am sending in a Marine. I am asking Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was CENTCOM commander from 1997 to 2000, to do what President Kennedy asked Gen. Shoup to do — not in Vietnam, of course, but in Afghanistan.
Will he, like Shoup, say a million men will be needed to accomplish anything useful? I will know when Gen. Zinni reports back to me next month. Meanwhile, as you will understand, I will not approve any escalation in Afghanistan or the sending of any additional troops there.
You will hear loud complaints that my reluctance to go the route of foolish consistency will make our country less safe. To that I say: Rubbish.
The adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made our country less, not more safe.
I do not wish to follow the example of my predecessor who attempted to make a virtue of never changing his mind.
In her classic book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, historian Barbara Tuchman described this mindset:
“Wooden-headedness assesses a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions, while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs … acting according to the wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”
Author Tuchman points succinctly to what flows from wooden-headedness:
“Once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it. … Adjustment is painful. … Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information ‘cognitive dissonance,’ an academic disguise for ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’”
It seems fitting that Barbara Tuchman’s daughter, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Foundation, has shown herself to be inoculated against “cognitive dissonance.”
A Carnegie report on Afghanistan concluded in January 2009:
"The only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start withdrawing troops. The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban."
Why would I cite Jessica Tuchman and no other think-tanker? It is not because of her historian mother. It is because Jessica Tuchman and her colleagues at Carnegie were right about the folly of invading Iraq.
In sum, I intend to put an end to wooden-headedness with respect to adventures in Asia. I have no interest in quagmires, and I am seeking fresh advice — including from those who were right about Iraq.
As you might imagine, the cost savings are likely to be immense. In any event, they are likely to be more than enough to defray any extra cost that attends the initial stage of real health care reform.
Like the Good Samaritan, if more is needed, we will be able to spend it.
We are going to get health care reform done. And pay for it. Yes, we can.
May God bless America, and the rest of the world too.