I think the speech, though, accomplished some important goals: it almost certainly united Congressional Democrats and asserted Presidential leadership at a time when Barack Obama's practice of deferring to Congress seemed to be harming his agenda. It made an effective case for reforming the healthcare system, it candidly addressed some of the B.S. being spread around by shameless liars like Sarah Palin (I'm glad he used the word "lies"), and it successfully positioned the President where he should be: above the fray, guiding the discourse but not mired in it.
It was not, as Sen. Lindsey Graham bafflingly claimed (or maybe not so bafflingly, since he was just giving red meat to the FOX News crowd), a combative and uncompromising speech: the President provided a defense of the public option but explicitly said he wouldn't insist on it; he expressed willingness and even eagerness to hear other ideas; he pointed to John McCain and praised him for a policy idea; he spoke convincingly of self-reliance, freedom, and the healthy American skepticism towards government - while emphasizing that determing how much government is appropriate is something that good, patriotic Americans can disagree on. Consider this passage near the end:
That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character -- our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise. [...]You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter -- that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
If anything, he was too polite to Republicans, since he has been met with almost nothing but dishonesty, demagoguery, and bad faith throughout this entire debate. (The passing reference in the above passage to "facts and reason" being "thrown overboard" was far more charitable than I would have been, but that's why I blog and he governs.) Most House and Senate Republicans have behaved disgustingly; they deserve derision and to be shut out of the process. Yes, yes - I know that's not how politics works. I don't need a lecture on the mechanics of the Senate, or on the intricacies of major legislative efforts. But at some point, people have to be held responsible for their actions. Lucky for them that the President is remarkably civil towards his antagonists - but unlucky for them that his mind is on the long haul, and he's undermining them every day.
A great example of this was the way he movingly spoke of Ted Kennedy, using the moment as an opportunity to speak about Kennedy's life goal of healthcare reform and his bipartisan bona fides. Obama didn't name a single Democrat when he talked about Kennedy's friends, but he named three Republicans in the room - Sens. Hatch, McCain, and Grassley. That's classy as well as effective.
Ultimately, the speech probably changed very little about the final form of the bills pending in Congress - although it now appears that the public option is dead, which is a depressing development due in no small part to inconsistent messaging and weak support from the White House. Obama should not have raised expectations and made such a strong case for the public option if he was willing to let it die less than a week later.
But on a more positive note, the speech took the focus away from Congress and gave the impression of "ownership" of whatever happens back to the President. That's good, since he's considerably more popular than Congressional leaders, and this process should be an evaluation of his leadership skills. I think the President gave a great speech, and I think he'll end up with a good bill. When it comes to a problem as huge as healthcare, a process as maddeningly difficult as legislation, and the incredible dishonesty and acrimony dominating American politics, that's nothing less than brilliant.