But even as Democrats hope for a new wind on health care, Republicans were largely unswayed, with Arizona Rep. Trent Franks calling the address “divorced from reality completely.”
“To suggest that the Republicans haven’t tried to offer up ideas and suggestions is a complete fallacy,” Franks said. “The president, unfortunately, profoundly underestimated the intelligence of the American people, and I think Arizonans are a little smarter than average.”
Citing a “collective failure to meet this challenge,” Obama at times goaded even Republicans to their feet in applause. But his address was aimed as much at Congress as it was at the American people. As new polls show Congress with the lowest approval ratings of all time, Obama aimed to separate himself from Washington.
“The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.”
Obama acknowledged that every president for a century has tried to fix health care and failed, but the president pledged to succeed.
“I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” Obama said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, a leader of the liberal House Progressive Caucus that has pushed hard for a public option, said Obama did not give liberals everything they wanted but that the president did offer some hope.
The speech was “encouraging for progressives in Congress,” Grijalva said. “He called out the opponents for the lies and distortions that have been going on in this debate, (and) he talked about, in a powerful way, that there is a role for government in this issue.”
“The public plan was mentioned. He didn’t go into the specificity that some of us would like, but the door didn’t get slammed in our face,” Grijalva said. He added that liberals retain “the ability to continue this fight internally within our own caucus.”
Still, Republicans from Arizona said they were not swayed, expressing disappointment that the president’s speech seemed more focused on attacking the GOP than it did demonstrating a willingness to reach across the aisle.
“I had hoped that he would demonstrate that he is listening to the concerns of people across America who have reservations about the federal government playing a massive new role in the health care industry and regulating every jot and tittle,” said Rep. John Shadegg.
“The speech was simply doubling down and saying, ‘Look, this is a reasonable proposal and you ought to go along with it.’”
Shadegg is one of several House and Senate Republicans who has offered his own bill, and he said there are similarities between the parties where compromise is possible. Shadegg said every major bill on both sides of the aisle would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and that those people should not be made to pay significantly more than a healthy customer.
Franks said compromise would be possible on allowing customers to reach across state lines in order to provide more competition, and hence, less expensive coverage for those who wish to shop nationwide.
But Rep. Jeff Flake said Obama’s speech seemed to do more to preclude working together than it did to encourage bipartisanship.
Much of the speech “was calling out Republicans. It didn’t seem like the type of speech you give if you want a bipartisan product,” Flake said.
The president has largely left it up to Congress to iron out details of a health care plan, but during his speech he outlined a three-tiered plan that the White House hopes will spur Congress to action.
The plan, Obama said, will provide more security to those who already have insurance and provide insurance in the first place for those without coverage, all while slowing the exploding costs government and the industry face.
But even as both sides say they want to work together, Obama faces a House in which he is unlikely to earn many Republican votes. Therefore, when a group like Grijalva’s Progressive Caucus threatens to withhold votes, the president may feel greater pressure to satisfy his own party than to try to reach out to the GOP.
“The Progressive Caucus wants to deliver votes for health reform for all the reasons the president talked about today,” Grijalva said.
Progressives have battled with centrist and conservative Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom have said they do not support the public option.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, the two-term Democrat and with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords one of Arizona’s two Blue Dogs, is one who does not support the public option the way it’s written now, spokesman Adam Bozzi said.
“I agree with many Republicans and Democrats who do not want the government to take over the entire health care system,” Mitchell said in a statement after Obama’s speech. Mitchell did not conduct interviews following the address.
Grijalva said he believes the Progressive Caucus is in better shape than Blue Dogs are.
“I think they might have played their cards a little early,” Grijalva said. Noting that Blue Dogs have voted against several Democratic initiatives this year, he added: “The Progressive Caucus brings votes to the table.”
At a time when polls show the average American is concerned with deficits and spending, Obama took care to link health care reform with lowering government costs. “Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close,” the president said.
Obama’s address came after a month in which town hall meetings filled with angry voters frequently yelled at their elected members of Congress, in many cases having to be removed forcibly.
Even some members of Congress seemed caught up in misstatements being widely disseminated. When Obama sought to disavow claims that illegal immigrants would be covered by health care reform, one person on the Republican side of the aisle shouted “lie,” earning withering stares from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, and the president himself.
Arizona Republicans expressed disappointment that their colleague, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, had made such a public break with decorum.
“I thought that was unfortunate,” said Flake. “He’s the president. He deserves more respect than that.”
Franks said the phrasing was inartful, but he took issue with the president’s assertion that the current proposal would not provide funding for abortions.
“We’ve tried to amend the bill many times. Those amendments were either just voted down or kept from being considered on parliamentary bases,” Franks said. “My response was, that is not true, because it’s not true. It’s fundamentally untrue.”
“Joe’s comment there was not one that I would have made,” Franks said, referring to Wilson. “I think it’s very important that people who are trying to lead the country do not call each other liars.”
Speaking on CNN’s Larry King Live, Sen. John McCain urged Wilson to apologize. “Totally disrespectful. No place for it in that setting or any other,” McCain said.
Later, Wilson did apologize in a statement that noted his outburst was “inappropriate and regrettable.”
-Reid Wilson is a staff reporter for The Hill in Washington D.C. and he is a regular contributor to the Arizona Capitol Times.