President Barack Obama enters the well of the House tonight for his second address to Congress, but while he appeared in the same location in February, the place has really changed.
The new president who went before lawmakers on Feb. 24 — his popularity high and his followers feverishly enthusiastic — was free to offer soaring rhetoric and lay out general goals and expectations for the coming year. Now, his popularity is in decline and his most precious initiative, overhaul of the nation’s health care system, is in danger of going down the tubes.
The hysteria that welcomed him everywhere and the stirring presence that he could command at will before Republicans and Democrats alike is an increasingly distant memory. While his February appearance before Congress was a triumphal peroration by the nation’s new leader, his latest appearance is a desperate rescue mission.
During his first speech to Congress, Obama offered almost nothing tangible about his health care proposal, devoting a mere 174 words of a 6,427-word speech to his top domestic priority. It seemed at the time that he had enough political capital to allow others to share in it, that even as others helped take the reins, he would still steer the final product in a direction of his choosing.
“There will be many different opinions and ideas about how to achieve reform, and that is why I’m bringing together businesses and workers, doctors and health care providers, Democrats and Republicans to begin work on this issue next week,— Obama said. While warning that the process would not be easy, he boldly declared: “Let there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait and it will not wait another year.—
Responses ranged from the polite appreciation of opponents to gushing praise. “There were almost Churchillian overtones to this speech,— rhapsodized Des Moines Register Editorial Page Editor Carol Hunter the day after it was delivered. “He really called the nation to action and really did set forth a vision on reducing oil dependence, reforming health care, and improving our education system,— she said.
But now, Obama is getting heat for failing to lead by telling Congress exactly what he wants on health care and for over-outsourcing the initiative. Democrats and Republicans alike want to hear specifics about the plan.
“He has a clear vision of what he wants to see in a Congressional health care proposal and we look forward to his address to Congress tomorrow evening, where he will lay that out in greater detail,— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement Tuesday after he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with Obama at the White House
Republicans say they specifically want Obama to show he has tailored his ideas in response to the anger many lawmakers heard during town hall meetings during the August recess.
"I think [Americans] are going to be tuning in, and I think Republicans will be listening intently and saying is there evidence here that the president of the United States has been listening to the American people," House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said.
Obama will deliver, White House aides promise. His usual defense of the health care overhaul effort — which has featured detailed efforts to pick apart the arguments of opponents — will be supplemented by the most detailed recounting yet of his own specific policy preferences. While he won’t make actual veto threats, he will draw more lines in the sand than he has before.
No one will “walk away confused about where he is,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “I think he will answer many of the big questions about how we move forward on health care reform and what he considers reform to truly be.—
And Obama will use his considerable oratorical skills to try to galvanize lawmakers and the millions who will view him on TV.
“I think first and foremost the president will use tomorrow night to speak directly to the American people about his vision for achieving stability and security through health care reform for the American people,— Gibbs said Tuesday.
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.