This coming Wednesday, September 9th, President Obama may give a good, even a great, speech to try to save his health care reform proposals. But it won't give him back his political mojo.
Obama plans to address a joint session of Congress in what's being billed as a major speech on his signature issue of health care reform. His oratory that night may well be what saves his reform proposals from falling into a legislative abyss. It may arrest what's been weeks of freefall in the opinion polls, it may even buy him a couple or three percentage points in improved approval in those polls. What it won't do is carry Obama back to the mountaintop he once enjoyed.
After weeks of watching Obama brought low by hundreds of angry reform protesters attacking him ad nauseum at town hall meetings nationwide, it might be easy to forget the lofty position our 44th president occupied just a short while ago.
Built on a campaign of inspiring, lyrical rhetoric, and forged from the many daunting challenges the young president faced as soon as he was sworn in, Obama once enjoyed public approval that was the envy of Washington. He seemed to be made of political Kevlar.
Obama very much needs to get that magic back and reconnect with the American people on that deeper level if his presidency ultimately is to succeed.
But a policy speech that will be about "what our administration wants to happen with regard to health care, and what we are going to push for, specifically," in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, is not what's going to make that happen. Health care reform has become too politicized, and the air around it too acrimonious. for even the most poetic speech to do more than perhaps enact the legislation. But anything more transformative is out of the question.
Then, if Obama can't get his mojo back with a speech and venue nearing the grandiosity of a full-blown State of the Union, what will? I don't know, nobody does — because that thing hasn't happened yet. But, inevitably, a circumstance will arise in which the entire nation looks to the president, and only the president, to respond.
Let's just look at recent history:
In the summer of 2001, George W. Bush wasn't faltering perhaps as badly as Obama is today, but don't forget that back then, he was seen as muddling along at best. Bush was coming under criticism for having let Senator Jim Jeffords, of his own party, turn away and hand control of the Senate to Democrats for the first time in years.
Then came September 11, the twin towers fell, and the whole nation turned to Bush as one. At the time, Bush seemed to rise to the occasion, was rewarded with record-high approval ratings — and essentially was given a do-over for his presidency. By contrast, Bush faced a similar test four years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In that instance, his leadership was found to be lacking, and that marked the beginning of the end of the American people believing Bush ever could be a successful president.
A decade earlier, Bill Clinton was even more very much in the place Obama finds himself in today. Clinton's own health care initiative had failed, and in 1995, the president was still reeling from the GOP takeover of Congress. Clinton actually had to argue publicly that the Constitution gave him relevance as president in the face of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, who seemed to be the ones running the place.
Not long after that, though, extremists bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in what at the time was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Americans in mourning sought solace not from Gingrich or Congress, but from the occupant of the Oval Office.
Clinton rose to the occasion, and the comfort he provided the nation gave him the opportunity for Americans to see Clinton anew. Clinton's performance in the days and weeks following the bombing of the Murrah Building won him wide praise, initiating the reconnection between Clinton and the nation. It gave a president who once appeared to be destined to be another one-termer a fresh start, sent him on to a resounding re-election, and poll numbers that remained highly positive, even in the darkest days of impeachment.
To be clear, it needn't be another terrorist attack that brings Obama and the nation back together. I certainly am not hoping for such an event to happen again. I don't know what it will be, or when it will be, for that matter. But what I am certain of is that something will happen that once again focuses the eyes and hearts of a nation on the man whom they elected as their leader, to offer advice, guidance and comfort.
When it comes, though, Obama need only rise to the occasion.