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Mark Shields: Obama Without the Poetry

The president's nationally televised speech on health care leaves little to be desired — or inspired

The late Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a political leader of surpassing eloquence, once introduced John F. Kennedy, the man who defeated him for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, this way: “Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke,’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march’?”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Stevenson’s words came to mind after listening to President Barack Obama in his most recent hour-long, nationally televised news conference on health-care reform. Obama was knowledgeable, well-spoken and, in the blunt words of one generally admiring Democrat, “tiresomely academic.” Whatever one’s reaction to Obama and his earnest lecture on health-care policy, nobody was confusing him with Demosthenes, which is to say that nobody was shouting, “Let us march.”

In Stevenson’s acceptance speech of the presidential nomination, he said memorably: “Let us talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth that there are no gains without pains.” After winning the presidency, Obama on Meet the Press appeared to faintly echo Stevenson when he said, “The kind of notion of shared benefits and burdens is something that I think has been lost for too long, and it’s something that I’d like to see restored.”

But that was then, and this is now. When asked, at Wednesday’s news conference, by Jake Tapper of ABC News about “the sacrifices that Americans might have to make” under his health-care plan, Obama’s answer demanded precious little in the way of blood, sweat or tears from his fellow citizens: “They’re going to have to give up paying for things that don’t make them healthier.”

In the judgment of one respected Democratic professional who understandably did not want to be quoted by name: “The president’s (nationally televised) case for health-care reform was dismal and boring. His answers were not crisp and were too long. Given the high stakes, there was nothing you would remember, no poetry.”

It was Mario Cuomo who famously observed that politicians “campaign in poetry, but have to govern in prose.” Still, when five out of six Americans do have health-care coverage and when, according to a recent CNN-Opinion Research national survey, nearly three out of four of us said we were “generally satisfied” and not “dissatisfied” with our “health insurance coverage,” any national leader who seeks to overhaul that admittedly flawed system had better be able to motivate and inspire.

In making his news-conference case, there was neither poetry nor music in Obama’s words. He has yet to challenge us to rise above the self-centeredness of the “Me Generation” and the narrow, constant “Am I better off?” and instead to enlarge that test to “How are we doing?” To answer different questions: Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure?

The current reports of health-care reform’s death are greatly exaggerated. Congress’ failure to pass health-care reform legislation in some form before its month-long August recess is hardly the end of the world. It would be far more damaging to the ultimate prospects for reform if the Democratic leadership in the House or the Senate were to bring up a health-care bill and then not have the votes needed to pass it on the floor.

But if he is to persuade an electorate of mostly insured, mostly satisfied voters of the wisdom and the need to dramatically change that health-insurance system, Obama must be a lot less like Cicero and a lot more like Demosthenes. He needs to convince us that, together, we “must march.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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