Comment: Despite apology, furor continues over health plans

Joe Wilson shouts at U.S. President Barack Obama during his speech Wednesday about healthcare reform.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced this week that the “time for bickering is over” and then found out just how wrong he could be.

Obama convened a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives Wednesday for a televised prime-time address, the kind of speech-in-the-spotlight that presidents give only a few times in their entire careers. His goal was to finally convince Congress to pass a healthcare reform plan after months of squabbling. There is a certain protocol to that kind of appearance by the president: his supporters cheer, his opponents sit quietly, grumble or boo. Where does President Obama’s speech leaves the health debate Was Joe Wilson right to shout what he did Tell us below. But if you were watching anywhere in America or around the world, you heard something almost unheard of in that setting: a lone voice cry out ‘You lie!” It was Republican Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina. The president ignored him; the country did not. Within minutes his brief exclamation was being repeated on television and the internet as often as anything the president himself said.

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Wilson quickly apologized but the incident was telling, an indication of how much of the early enthusiasm for the Obama presidency has been replaced by acrimony. CNN’s most recent poll ahead of the speech found that a majority of Americans disapprove of how he’s handled healthcare and the economy. Only a small majority approve his job performance over all. So Obama needed to convince the country and the Congress to unite behind him on healthcare, in part, because the strength of his entire presidency is at stake. Washington insiders didn’t agree on the impact he could expect. “Had he given this speech three months ago, when there was a glow about his presidency I think he could have swept the country,” said David Gergen, a former advisor to Democratic and Republican presidents. But now, he said “I am not sure he moved the people he needed to move if he wanted to reverse the tide.”

Tides go up and down. The president’s strategy could succeed. A CNN poll immediately after Obama spoke and the Republicans responded found 67 percent of those watching favored the proposals (although the audience for the speech appears to be more Democratic than the U.S. population as a whole.) But the time for bickering isn’t entirely over. There will be more of it, not necessarily followed by an apology.