What Obama's Speech Needs To Do


Is Jon Favreau, the chief presidential speechwriter, going to get a break? The White House has announced that the president will address a joint session of Congress on September 9. A primetime, joint session speech is about the biggest thing a president can do rhetorically and so the pressure will be on to come up with something that's at once inspiring and clarifying. I say inspiring in the sense that Obama needs to bring back hope when it comes to health care, the idea that it's possible to have a future in which people with insurance don't worry about losing it and the uninsured can be insured, where bankruptcy need not look as a possibility over every serious illness. The debate so far has all been about problems, not hope and possibility. He also needs to clarify what he wants, what he would not tolerate and what his plan really stands for. It'll be easy enough to shoot down "death panels" and some of the more ludicrous criticisms of the health care plans in play. What will be harder to do is to explain the public option--if he chooses to even continue to defend it--or to explain how universal care could be achieved without it.

A few months ago, I was skeptical of all the talk that health care was coming together in a more positive way than in the 1990s. You remember all the chat from this spring: Everyone was involved, Congress and not some secret Hillary task force was writing the bill, the president knew what he was doing. I'm sorry I seemed to have been proven right, at least thus far, but I always thought the fundamental facts were the same as in the 90s: powerful interests like the status quo and they won't easily budge. No matter how suave the president, that fact remains.

Maybe he can turn it around with a primetime speech--and that's assuming the networks all take it live, which I think they will. Somehow I doubt it.

I fear we're heading back to the CHIP model, the Children's Health Insurance Program where we bring more groups of the uninsured into the expensive, bloated system rather than fix the system. Hey, it's better than nothing. But it's not universal coverage and it's not the entitlement fix everyone knows our long-term fiscal outlook demands.

Would be very curious to know what my colleague, Jim Fallows, former presidential speechwriter, thinks should go in such an address. Paul Glastris? Mike Gerson? Walter Shapiro? Any other presidential speechwriters of the past want to weigh in on what Jon Favreau has ahead of him?

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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