Barack Obama speech to joint session of Congress, September 2009

Barack Obama speech to joint session of Congress, September 2009

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United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Barack Hussein Obama II is the 44th and current President of the United States. He is the first African American to hold the office. Obama previously served as a United States Senator from Illinois, from January 2005 until he resigned following his victory in the 2008 presidential election.Born in...

 discussed his plan for health care reform
Health care reform in the United States
Health care reform in the United States has a long history, of which the most recent results were two federal statutes enacted in 2010: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act , signed March 23, 2010, and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 , which amended the PPACA and...

 in a speech delivered to a joint session of the 111th United States Congress
111th United States Congress
The One Hundred Eleventh United States Congress was the meeting of the legislative branch of the United States federal government from January 3, 2009 until January 3, 2011. It began during the last two weeks of the George W. Bush administration, with the remainder spanning the first two years of...

 on September 9, 2009 at 8:00 PM (EDT). The speech was delivered to Congress on the floor of the chamber of the United States House of Representatives
United States House of Representatives
The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress, the bicameral legislature which also includes the Senate.The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the Constitution...

 in the United States Capitol
United States Capitol
The United States Capitol is the meeting place of the United States Congress, the legislature of the federal government of the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., it sits atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall...

. House Speaker
Speaker of the United States House of Representatives
The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, or Speaker of the House, is the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives...

 Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Patricia D'Alesandro Pelosi is the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives and served as the 60th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011...

 presided over the joint session and was accompanied by the President of the United States Senate, Joe Biden
Joe Biden
Joseph Robinette "Joe" Biden, Jr. is the 47th and current Vice President of the United States, serving under President Barack Obama...

, the Vice President of the United States
Vice President of the United States
The Vice President of the United States is the holder of a public office created by the United States Constitution. The Vice President, together with the President of the United States, is indirectly elected by the people, through the Electoral College, to a four-year term...

. Energy Secretary Steven Chu
Steven Chu
Steven Chu is an American physicist and the 12th United States Secretary of Energy. Chu is known for his research at Bell Labs in cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, along with his scientific colleagues Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and...

 was chosen as the designated survivor
Designated survivor
A designated survivor is a member of the United States Cabinet who is appointed to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the president and the country's other top leaders are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union addresses and presidential...

 and did not attend the speech.


Obama's speech addressed topics regarding the public health insurance option
Public health insurance option
The public health insurance option is a proposed government-run health insurance agency which competes with other health insurance companies. It is not the same as Publicly-funded health care. Called the public insurance option or public option, for short, it was a proposed health insurance plan...

, private insurance reform, estimated costs and revenue, basic coverage for individuals and employers, as well as subsidies and waivers for those who can't afford coverage, and the importance of tort reform
Tort reform
Tort reform refers to proposed changes in common law civil justice systems that would reduce tort litigation or damages. Tort actions are civil common law claims first created in the English commonwealth system as a non-legislative means for compensating wrongs and harm done by one party to...

 in bringing costs down. The President's speech lasted 47 minutes and contained 5,614 words. It was briefly interrupted by a cry of "You lie!" from Republican Rep. Joe Wilson
Joe Wilson (U.S. politician)
Addison Graves Wilson, Sr., most commonly known as Joe Wilson , is the U.S. Representative for , serving since 2001. He is a member of the Republican Party...

, referring to a statement by Obama that his plan would not apply to illegal immigrants (discussed in more detail in the next section).

Obama quoted a letter sent to him from Ted Kennedy
Ted Kennedy
Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy was a United States Senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Democratic Party. Serving almost 47 years, he was the second most senior member of the Senate when he died and is the fourth-longest-serving senator in United States history...

, who had died a few weeks earlier. Kennedy had composed the letter after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and requested that the letter be sent after he died. Quoting Kennedy's letter, Obama said, "that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

In the quoted portions of his letter, Kennedy, a steadfast proponent of health care reform, also posed the question of what would happen if one knew treatment existed for a condition but one could not afford it.

President Obama placed health care reform into a broader historical perspective, in which the nature and role of government has been the subject of historical debate, and compared his reform to Social Security
Social Security (United States)
In the United States, Social Security refers to the federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program.The original Social Security Act and the current version of the Act, as amended encompass several social welfare and social insurance programs...

 and Medicare
Medicare (United States)
Medicare is a social insurance program administered by the United States government, providing health insurance coverage to people who are aged 65 and over; to those who are under 65 and are permanently physically disabled or who have a congenital physical disability; or to those who meet other...

. He concluded his address by returning to Kennedy's theme of the "character of our country":

I understand how difficult this health care debate has been. I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them. 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's 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. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test. Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.

Outburst by Joe Wilson

During the speech, the president discussed the health coverage of illegal immigrants, saying: "There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally." At this point, South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson
Joe Wilson (U.S. politician)
Addison Graves Wilson, Sr., most commonly known as Joe Wilson , is the U.S. Representative for , serving since 2001. He is a member of the Republican Party...

 yelled "You lie!", briefly interrupting the speech. Wilson later issued a statement apologizing for his outburst. On September 15, the House approved a "resolution of disapproval" (as opposed to a formal censure
A censure is an expression of strong disapproval or harsh criticism. Among the forms that it can take are a stern rebuke by a legislature, a spiritual penalty imposed by a church, and a negative judgment pronounced on a theological proposition.-Politics:...

) against Wilson, on a near party-line 240-179 vote.

The outburst led to media coverage about the issue. Various sources noted that the House bill denies direct benefits, such as affordability credits, to illegal immigrants. Section 246 of the bill, titled "NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS," states: "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States." The bill did, however, require some to purchase health insurance who were not explicitly restricted from the proposed Health Insurance Exchange. The Obama administration later stated that, in the final bill, these people would not be able to participate in the Exchange. Specific language was subsequently included when the Senate healthcare-reform plan was introduced on September 16 which prohibits participation in the insurance exchange by persons not lawfully present in the U.S.

Republican response

The official, post-speech Republican response was given by Congressman Charles Boustany
Charles Boustany
Charles William Boustany, Jr. is the U.S. Representative for , serving since 2005. He is a member of the Republican Party.-Early life, education, and medical career:...

 of Louisiana
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

, a former cardiothoracic surgeon
Cardiothoracic Surgery
Cardiothoracic surgery is the field of medicine involved in surgical treatment of diseases affecting organs inside the thorax —generally treatment of conditions of the heart and lungs .-Cardiac / Thoracic:...


With few notable exceptions, Congressional Republicans were silent as their Democratic colleagues applauded various points Obama made during the course of the speech. Republicans also held up copies of the health care bills in objection when Obama spoke and others laughed when Obama said that there are "significant details" to be worked out before a health overhaul can be passed.

Critical reception

BBC News
BBC News
BBC News is the department of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs. The department is the world's largest broadcast news organisation and generates about 120 hours of radio and television output each day, as well as online...

 called Obama's health care speech "one of the most important speeches of his presidency." The Economist
The Economist
The Economist is an English-language weekly news and international affairs publication owned by The Economist Newspaper Ltd. and edited in offices in the City of Westminster, London, England. Continuous publication began under founder James Wilson in September 1843...

called the speech a "success on several measures". Calling it a triumph of speech writing Time
Time is a part of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change such as the motions of objects....

magazine praised the speech for its clarity, brevity and limited use of jargon. Other media outlets felt the speech was "too little, too late" to make a difference in the outcome of the health care debate.

Financial markets

The shares of health insurance companies advanced after analysts concluded that the proposal outlined by Obama as good news for healthcare investors. Citi
Citigroup Inc. or Citi is an American multinational financial services corporation headquartered in Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States. Citigroup was formed from one of the world's largest mergers in history by combining the banking giant Citicorp and financial conglomerate...

 analyst Charles Boorady was quoted as saying that he expected shares to rise further as passage of health care reform would expand enrollment in plans.

External links

  • Full text of speech at is the official website of the White House and is owned by the United States government. Launched in October 1994, it contains general American history information, as well as current news pertaining to the President, press briefings, proclamations, executive orders, and any speeches...

  • Video at The New York Times
    The New York Times
    The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...