Like a Knife Through Water

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Sep 15, 2009 10:42 AM
Like a Knife Through Water

What a fine speaker our president is. That's the overriding impression he left once he managed to get through the endless applause and handshakes and Roman ovations -- late Roman -- that have become a feature of presidential addresses to Congress and was finally allowed to begin his speech about health care.

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It's not the content of the speech that evokes wonder and admiration but the speaker himself. Content scarcely matters with this president. What counts is how he delivers it. It's as if he were lecturing a law school class, and the students are just bowled over--not with the case he's presenting but the presentation. If the case is a muddle, and will raise more questions than it answers once the haze of admiration has cleared, never mind. For he's a master of what the Italians call una bella figura. He cuts a fine figure.

But for all his craft, the star of the evening seemed curiously removed from his thesis, if he has one. If you can find it and agree with it, fine. If not, he assures you, he's willing to compromise. What's not to like? Or to like, for that matter. Form, not content, is what matters. Design, not engineering. As in an Italian sports car on the showroom floor. Never been driven. Maybe not meant to be driven. Everything shimmers, everything is negotiable. And the salesman's style is Armani impeccable. Substance? It can come later, if at all.

A thin but impermeable film seems to separate this president from any of the hard decisions. That'll be up to Congress. It will lift anchor, wait for a wind, provide the ballast, do the heavy lifting, choose the course minute by minute and day after day, confer endlessly, and generally see the vessel, however battered by then, through the storms of debate. The president is just there to provide the sail.

But what smooth sailing it is, at least for an hour. Give our president a teleprompter and away he goes, like a knife through water. Resistance parts before him. Doubts melt away. Disbelief is suspended. And yet, as with a knife through water, everything just closes behind it, and remains as before: fluid. Far below the surface, the hard questions remain, rocky, obdurate, as untouched as the speaker himself.

By the end of the evening, our president has spoken so smoothly that it's not clear just what he's said, if anything, or what difference it makes. Maybe he's not there to make a difference, just to speak. Did I mention that he's very good at it? That much all can agree upon. As for the subject of his address, health care, it can wait.

The morning after, what has changed? The problems with the nation's health-care system, which isn't much of a system, are still there. So are the aspects of the system that work fine for so many of us, though the speaker scarcely touches upon them. It's as if he were a man in a bubble, protected by his sheen, yet unable to penetrate it. He seems immune to contact with abrasive reality, and wrestling with it may be the one indispensable requirement for legislative success.

You'd think that Barack Obama, being a Chicago politician, would know that politics ain't beanbag. Wasn't it Mister Dooley who first made that observation a century ago? And didn't that fictive Irish barkeep and incisive political commentator practice his comforting trade in the Windy City? Well, politics ain't rhetoric, either, as good as this president is at it.

But never mind all that. Just relax and listen to the comforting voice, as you would in a hypnotist's chair, and Obamacare sounds like the best of all worlds. Everyone will be insured and no one's taxes will be raised. Not really. Well, maybe the other fellow's. Better, quicker, safer health care will be delivered but it will cost less. (Mandrake the Magician had nothing on this president.) To save money, we'll just spend more. This administration is very good at that.

We will "build on what works," but fashion new systems that have never worked before, mainly because they've never been tried before. At least not in this country. Time is of the essence but, never fear, much of the president's plan won't go into effect for years. The opposition is resorting to scare tactics but, if his plan isn't adopted now, "more will die as a result." He's against partisanship except when he can't resist a dig or two at Republicans. But don't you worry your pretty little head about such details. Just leave them to Reid, Pelosi and Partisan Co. to iron out. All the pieces will fall into place. Or maybe just fall.

Why ask so many questions anyway? Be assured that the president's program will usher in the best of all worlds. Just maybe not the best of all possible worlds. That's the catch. But while the country is under his spell for an hour, why spoil the moment by thinking? He proceeds so surely, at a smooth clip of about a gap a minute. But that's OK, because he plans to come back and fill in each and every one. If only with a contradiction.

On reading the text of the president's speech in cold type the next morning, the gaps and contradictions leap off the page. And a hangover, like the kind that follows any binge, even a rhetorical one, begins. Questions buzz in the mind: Those of us with insurance through our company plans needn't change a thing, but if the president gets his Public Option, what's to prevent a cost-conscious company from shifting us onto it? Paying a fine to do so might be a bargain for the boss. There'll be tax credits galore but nothing in the president's plan will add to the federal deficit. There'll be co-ops and exchanges and subsidies, but just how they'll work, or if they'll work, and how much they'll cost in still higher taxes. ... All those little matters are far below a president's pay grade.

But the buzzing persists: Won't public health insurance drive private insurers out of competition, the way the Obama administration wants to cut the banks out of the business of providing government-guaranteed student loans? Nonsense, says the president. The public option would cover maybe only 5 percent of the population. The camel only wants to get his nose under the tent. Why is that not assuring?

Mr. Obama says he's not the first president to address health care, but he's determined to be the last. Can he be serious? As long as there is health care, politicians will be addressing it.

There are a lot of things both Republicans and Democrats -- and both kinds of those, yellow and blue dog -- can agree on. Like making health insurance portable. Like creating a more efficient, national market for health insurance -- one crosses state lines. Like reforming the law so doctors don't have to practice defensive medicine to guard against being sued for no good reason -- not just giving that goal a lick and promise and maybe a demonstration project.

Why not concentrate on common ground, fix what can be fixed, and don't mess with what ain't broken? Or would that be unspeakably sensible for a president who floats high above such mundane matters?

Still, there is a sliver of comfort in all the news coverage. On reading the reactions to the president's plan, the charge that the press sensationalizes everything it covers evaporates. For there in the good ol', knowledgeable ol' Washington Post is the most understated headline yet in this whole brouhaha over health care: "Details Still Lacking On Obama Proposal/ White House Unclear on How Some Far-Reaching Goals Would Be Met."

The president is no slouch at understatement himself. Almost in passing during his speech Wednesday night, he notes, "there remain some significant details to be ironed out." Like just about all of them.