For some time now, Americans have been hearing critics complain about President Barack Obama's plan to reform the country's health-care system. One problem with that, however, is there has been no presidential plan, just a series of proposals in the two houses of Congress.There is now. With his speech Wednesday night, Obama outlined the parameters of what he would and would not accept. Still more a set of aspirations than a detailed plan, it is nonetheless and uncontrovertibly his.
The speech was pure Obama, masterfully delivered and calculated to position him right in the middle. Not only is that clearly his comfort zone, but by giving centrist Democrats and maybe even one or two Republican senators something to work with, it gives him a fighting chance at actually getting something done.
He disappointed the left wing of his party by essentially agreeing that the so-called public option is negotiable. He made a gesture to Republicans that he at least is willing to listen to proposals about tort reform. He appealed to the fiscally concerned Blue Dog Democrats with a pledge to watch the cost of whatever emerges.
None of that will give him a guaranteed win - especially in that the all-important details of any final bill are weeks, if not months, away. But it does suggest the outline of a potentially winning strategy and gives the broad strokes of what could be meaningful - not earth-shaking, not revolutionary, but significant - change to America's health-care system.
That would be an accomplishment. One question, though, is whether he will get any help whatsoever from Republicans.
In the House, the answer probably is no, but with the number of Democrats in that body, he may not need it. If the public option is killed and any other concessions are made, the most-liberal Democrats will be disappointed, maybe furious, but in the end will have nowhere to go. They will back Obama's final bill.
The Senate is more complicated, but it well may be a Senate bill that emerges as the Obama plan. And in the final showdown, he need peel off only one or two Republican votes - and then not even on the bill itself.
A Republican could side with the president on the inevitable cloture vote and then vote against the health-care bill itself when a simple majority wins. There already is talk about how much influence Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is going to have in the actual writing of the bill.
Plus, by the time this is concluded, Massachusetts may have a new senator to replace the late Edward Kennedy. Counting the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, that would give the president a theoretically filibuster-proof 60 votes.
What the president effectively did Wednesday night was to announce the main event. The August recess was dominated by scenes of irate citizens screaming at town-hall meetings, angry anti-Obama crowds at "tea party" rallies and television's talking heads wringing their hands over the political demise of health-care reform and maybe even the Obama presidency.
But for television news, August is the season for "missing white girls" and shark attacks. And most of what passed for discussion of health care was little more substantive.
Even now, liberals are complaining that Obama is caving to the right and aiming too low. The Republicans oppose him all around in the hope he will break his teeth on what always has been an intractable issue. Even moderates such as Washington Post columnist David Broder wonder why he does not "do the hard things, the big things."
But that is not Obama. Because as Obama seems to know, if nothing changes, nothing will change. The first step, therefore, is not to change the world, but simply to get something done.
As Wednesday's speech showed, he is a pragmatist, almost genetically drawn to the center, and - soaring rhetoric notwithstanding - willing to make incremental changes. And that might be what it takes to at least begin to reform health care.
If the Obama camp had called a movie studio's central casting department for someone to play a bigoted southern congressman, they could not have produced a better caricature than the widely circulated photo of Wilson jabbing his finger at America's first black president and yelling "You lie!" as Obama was addressing a joint session of Congress. The image is priceless.
Wilson is purported to be a decent sort in real life and later called the White House to apologize. He spoke to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who accepted his apology on the president's behalf.
Emanuel should have thanked Wilson instead.