President Obama gave his first official State of the Union speech last night, in which he laid out his priorities for the next three years of his Administration. As expected, especially with the approaching November elections, jobs and the economy were featured front and center. It was far less certain how Obama would address health reform. The Democrats were thrown through a loop following the loss of Sen. Ted Kennedy's former Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown on Jan. 19, which ended their filibuster-proof majority of 60 Senate votes.
Seemingly overnight, the tone of discussion on health reform changed dramatically; before the Democrats were slowly-but-surely working out the modest differences between the House-passed bill and the Senate-passed one, and then after the election numerous Democrats in Congress started talking about how health reform might no longer be a priority or necessary before the November elections.
There had been a gradual leveling of the ship in recent days, however the State of the Union seemed as likely a place as any to see where the President stood. He came to health reform about half-way through the speech, transitioning to it from talking about helping middle class Americans economically. He went on to acknowledge the confusion and tension surrounding the issue:
"I didn't choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. (Laughter.) I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with preexisting conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who've been denied coverage; families –- even those with insurance -– who are just one illness away from financial ruin."
He defended some of the specifics of the health reform bills passed by each chamber of Congress--including reducing premiums, preserve the right of Americans to keep their doctor and their plan, and reducing the deficit, as the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will do--before returning to the idea that not everyone was enamored by the new plan:
"Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, 'What's in it for me?'"
Then the president said something that caught my ear:
"There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know."