For days, the tension has been mounting over what President Obama would say when he addressed the nation on health care.  Last night, with an eloquent prime time address to a joint session of Congress, the President powerfully rebooted the debate on health care.

The President challenged critics to engage in a more civil and fact-based discourse – a challenge that many Republican Congressmen failed to meet.  In an unusual breach of protocol, Republicans sometimes booed the President, and one Republican Congressman even shouted out “you lie!”  In his response to the President’s speech, Congressman Boustany reiterated unsubstantiated charges of “government takeover” and “rationing” that the president had refuted just moments before.  The net effect of all of this was to make Obama seem more reasonable and unflappable – utterly Presidential – in the presence of some of his more vociferous (and less self-possessed) critics.

Coming into the evening, the President had to achieve several big goals.  He needed to reassure a nervous public, explain what he was proposing, and reenergize his base both in Congress and in the nation.

President Obama did that and more. He came across as both passionate and calmly reasoned – again, a sharp and welcome contrast to the wilder critics that have dominated the cable news media.  At same time, the President staked out the high ground in the debate by reaching out and embracing ideas from Republicans.

He also successfully navigated the treacherous political waters around the “public option.”  While he made a clear case for a public option and took on the scare-mongers directly, he also strongly cautioned the left against making the public plan a litmus test for reform.

President Obama did not shy away from engaging with opponents.  He directly addressed the most common charges made against reform, giving special attention to issues affecting seniors.  He clearly restated his commitment to allow people to keep the coverage they have, to protect the Medicare program and to make sure health care reform does not add to the deficit.

Recent polls show that most Americans are confused by the debate. After last night’s speech, the key elements of reform–including insurance reforms, individual and employer responsibility and sliding scale subsidies—should be much clearer to the public. The President also reiterated the need for an exemption for those who still could not afford coverage. However, he did not engage on a crucial question for many low- and moderate-income households: Just what constitutes affordable coverage?

The President’s closing words speak for themselves:

That large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling.  It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise….

I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road — to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.

But that is not what the moment calls for.  That’s not what we came here to do.  We did not come to fear the future.  We came here to shape it.

(You can read the full remarks here.)

–Michael Miller, Director of Strategic Policy