The Biggest Moment of His Presidency

First takes on Obama's plan to take back the health care debate with a speech to a joint session of Congress

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Could President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress next week prove to be the make-or-break moment for far more than just health care reform. His presidency is at stake as well, several observers said. Here's their advice for what he should say to regain his mojo.

  • Swing for the Fences, writes Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight. "The White House may as well go ahead and raise expectations as much as possible: they'll want ratings points, and they'll want buzz: they'll want for this to be the defining moment of the health care debate." Silver says reform isn't impossible but that, "the Democrats are down 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, but with ample opportunity to turn the game around because they have the bases loaded and their cleanup hitter, Obama, at the plate." He argues that a big speech is a good idea because it plays to Obama's strong suit. "If he strikes out, he strikes out -- and it's probably finito for substantive health care reform. But at long last he'll be swinging for the fences, and this is a moment that should play to nearly all of Obama's strengths."
  • Bring Back the Hope on Health Care, says Matthew Cooper at The Atlantic's Politics Channel. "The debate so far has all been about problems, not hope and possibility." Cooper wants Obama to be clear about his expectations as well. "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."
  • Be Specific, write Anne E. Kornblut, Ceci Connolly, and Shailagh Murray, at The Washington Post. "Democrats think salesmanship is part of the problem, and they are pressing the president to take a more forceful role in selling reform by expressing in very clear terms what the bill would and would not do." They report that Obama's aides say he will be more "prescriptive" and specific than he has been in the past.
  • Speak From the Oval Office Instead, says The Economist. "The soft, behind-the-desk address is something of an early TV-age relic. It's gotten easier to stage massive events, but there's a distinct appeal to the image of the president, elbows on the table where he just wrapped up work--at any desk, really--talking quietly to his short-term subjects." The Economist notes that Bill Clinton's prime-time speech to Congress on health care received good reviews but "netted him nothing."
  • Not Even a Speech Can Save You Now, writes Karl Rove at The Wall Street Journal. Health care, he has argued again and again, is not broken. He says most Americans are satisfied with their health insurance and don't trust the government to meddle in it. "Less than five million people truly uncovered out of a population of 307 million. Americans don't believe this problem--serious but correctable--justifies the radical shift Mr. Obama offers." At The Weekly Standard, Mary Katherine Ham agrees. Another speech? she asks, incredulously. How original:
His appearances read like a list of unfortunate "Friends" episodes: "The One Where Obama Started an Ill-Advised Week-Long P.R. War With Cambridge Cops," "The One Where Obama Showed Up 45 Minutes Late, Made No News, and Answered No Questions," "The One Where Obama Promised to Go Through the Legislation He's Never Read Line-by-Line With Congress," "The One Where Obama Was Asked About 'Mean Signs' by the 11-Year-Old Daughter of an Obama Volunteer," "The One Where Obama Claimed His Plan Had AARP's Endorsement, When It Didn't," and "The One Where Obama Said He'd Never Supported Single-Payer."
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