At a low moment in the Obama campaign—during the brief interval when Sarah Palin’s nomination seemed like a good idea—an email ricocheted around among jumpy, anxious staffers. It featured a photo of the candidate pointing forward and the words, “Everyone chill the fuck out, I got this!” No one seemed to know where it originated, but it captured the way Barack Obama’s grace is most pronounced when everything around him seems to be careening out of control.
Generally, it’s a good idea for journalists to cultivate a distrust of politicians, but watching Obama’s health-care speech, I couldn’t help think of that email. If anyone can wrest reform out of our deformed political system, it is this man.
If anyone can wrest reform out of our deformed political system, it is this man.
Once again, Obama paid Americans the supreme compliment of talking to them as adults, capable of reasoning and grasping nuance. Certainly, for a liberal, the refusal to fight unequivocally for the public option rankled. The $900 billion figure he committed to was less than what most credible people say is necessary. But his in-your-face rebuke to the bad-faith attacks of the Republicans was thrilling. And the tough and luminous defense of liberalism in his stunning peroration felt epochal—finally, for the first time since the 1960s, we have a president who is not defensive about his progressive vision.
For at least the last month, Democrats have been losing the health-care debate because they seemed hung up on technocratic details while Republicans spoke in terms of principle and morality. With this speech, Obama began to turn that dynamic around. Soon, of course, things will devolve again, and the bill that eventually emerges will be in many ways disappointing and inadequate. But it will nevertheless represent historic progress, probably as much progress as is possible in a country with the kind of bitter, revanchist opposition grimacing through the president’s words on the Republican side of the aisle.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the Worldand Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.