The speech contained an important link all great presidents know how to make. It tied the case for fundamental change to enduring truths.
This kind of language is to be expected at the end of a tough effort to convince lawmakers, especially after so many arguments have already been made. It also spoke to the enormous risks. (There would have been no need for a St. Crispen's Day speech if the French were the ones with the shabby, small army.) By asking his fellow Democrats to do something hard, Obama was really asking some of them to lose their jobs. He said he thought voting for the bill would turn out to be a political benefit for Democrats. He has to say that, but he's got to know it's a stretch.
Health care legislation as the public understands it is unpopular. Voters do not view Obama's handling of the health care issue favorably. His overall disapproval rating is higher than his approval rating for the first time in his presidency. It will be difficult to change this dynamic before November, especially since Obama's powers of persuasion over the last year have been ineffective in changing public opinion on several issues.
Given that grim landscape, Obama and congressional Democrats are making the purest test of whether voters want what they say they do—politicians who follow their conviction no matter what the consequences. That was a key promise of Obama's campaign, though so too was a new era of bipartisanship that is nowhere in evidence.
Obama will have to finesse that as he takes to the campaign trail to campaign for all those undecided lawmakers he talked to this week. One strong point in his favor is now that health care has passed, he will be able to campaign in his strongest moral voice should he choose to—the voice that worked so well for him in 2008. One of the disasters of a loss on health care would have been that it would have relegated him to complaining about Republicans. That's not his best channel. He's much better—and voters like it much more—when he speaks of hope and uplift.
When the Democrats hit 216 votes in the House, they chanted, "Yes we can!," Obama's campaign slogan. Now Democrats and the White House have to hope that, having shown they can do something, the country will change its mind and decide that Congress should do it.
AP Video: The House vote to pass health care reform.
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