David Gergen | Bio
CNN Senior Political Analyst
In his fiery speech over Labor Day to the AFL-CIO, President Obama signaled that he intends to seize the offensive on health care this Wednesday night as he addresses a joint session of Congress. His supporters believe that it is none too soon and hope that his appearance will be a game-changer.
Obama has shown repeatedly in the past that when a speech really matters, he can sink a three-pointer from 30 feet and he knows it – “I’m LeBron, baby,” he told journalist David Mendell just before he delivered a boffo speech to the 2004 Democratic convention that catapulted him to fame.
Even so, Wednesday night’s health care speech may be one of the toughest he has faced, as he has to overcome at least three major challenges all at once.
First, he has to reverse the tide of public opinion that has turned against the Democrats’ general effort to overhaul health care. While most Americans agree that the system needs to be fixed, poll after poll shows that the country is at best divided on Obamacare as the answer – and some polls show greater numbers oppose than favor. Moreover, many of those who oppose do so passionately – a factor that heavily influences Members of Congress.
The question becomes whether opinion has become so settled that it may be too late for even an Obama to change people’s minds. After President Clinton went before a joint session in 1993 to promote his health care plan, public approval shot upward. But that was because the public was just being introduced to the President’s ideas. Later on, opinion soured and Clinton could never find a way to turn it around. Once public opinion has started to crystallize against a President, it is devilishly hard to change it – just ask George W. Bush about Iraq. We will have to wait and see how hardened opinion is today about health care.
Equally important, the President has appeared on prime time so often that he may not find as attentive an audience as he did in his early, golden months. Nor are television outlets likely to give the speech as much attention. This is Obama’s sixth prime time appearance in 8 months (two speeches, four press conferences), surpassing the records of all other presidents. Even Franklin Roosevelt gave only four fireside chats in his first eight months.
Second, the President must overcome tensions within his own Democratic party. Possibly, he will pick up a few Republican votes for reform in the next few days – everyone is now watching for the outcome of the Senate Finance Committee. But Democrats already know that to win, they cannot count on Republicans, but instead must achieve unity among themselves.
No one knows whether Obama can heal the obvious divisions within his party. Indeed, one of the surprises of this speech is that he is giving it so quickly after Congress returns from recess: most presidents would have spent time quietly working behind the scenes for a week or two, hammering out a deal within their own party, and then with a deal in hand, taken it to the public and sold it hard. That’s a more traditional way to success.
In choosing to speak before a joint session before he has a deal, Obama is running an obvious risk: that Democratic liberals from the House will emerge from the speech insisting they will pass a bill only if it has a public option and Democratic moderates in the Senate will insist they will pass a bill only if the public option is dropped. That will hardly seem like unity.
Third, the President must overcome a tension within the speech itself about his leadership. His AFL-CIO speech shows that his inclination now is to pick up a banner and rally his troops behind a battle cry, “Yes, we can! Yes, we will change health care!” To many of his liberal supporters, that kind of passionate leadership has been sorely missing from the White House in recent months.
But it is hard to give a stem-winder in favor of change, if at the same time, the President is quietly signaling, “But hey guys, we have to be realistic. If we can’t get what we want, let’s be prepared to give things away - starting with a public option.” That is not the stuff of brave, bold leadership of the kind that liberals are demanding.
How will he overcome these three challenges? None of us can be sure, and perhaps the White House is not yet fully sure, either. That’s why so much drama is now building around Wednesday night. Much is resting on the line and he is shooting from over 30 feet.