8 a.m. ET: Is the 233rd day of Barack Obama's presidency the most important one yet?
Given that he is less than a quarter of the way through his first term, Obama has had quite a few big moments already -- the economic stimulus bill, foreign speeches and summits, the auto bailout and more. But tonight's address to Congress represents the most crucial hour yet in Obama's fight for his signature legislative initiative. The Los Angeles Times dubs this "a crucial moment" that could allow Obama "to reassert his grip on a political apparatus that soon will determine whether his agenda succeeds or fails." The Boston Globe says tonight's speech is one "the president and his advisers see as crucial to regaining influence over a debate that in recent weeks has been defined largely by the president’s critics." And Politico writes that "one of the main pillars of Obama’s reputation — that his gift for healing words would combine with the power of his biography to transcend the rancor of modern politics — has never looked more wobbly."
Most analyses agree that there are two paramount questions about tonight's speech: What will Obama say about the public option? And what tone will he strike toward Republicans -- conciliatory or defiant? Maureen Dowd calls on Obama to adopt a feistier tone: "He can live long and prosper by being less Spocky and more Rocky." Steven Pearlstein offers advice not echoed by many others, that Obama can succeed tonight "not only by laying down the moral and economic imperative of health-care reform but by coming clean on some of the tradeoffs that will be necessary in achieving it." Is now the time to call for real sacrifice? Roll Call notes how much has changed since Obama addressed Congress Feb. 24, when the new president, "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."
Obama certainly runs the risk of being accused of saying "nothing new" by politicians and a press corps that has been paying much closer attention than most of the public has. Much of what Obama supposedly "needs to do" he has done before repeatedly -- reassure seniors about their Medicare, debunk the "death panels," attack insurance companies, and so on. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't do all those things again, on the bigger stage tonight will provide. Along those lines, The Fix writes, one piece of advice Democratic strategists have for the president is, "Know Your Audience: Obama needs to avoid getting sucked in to speaking to the elected officials in the House chamber." The same goes for catering to reporters and the commentariat rather than the average voter.
Obama's address comes as the reform tide may already be turning. After writing for more than a month about the issue's demise, it was almost inevitable that the media would reverse course at some point and start looking for a new angle. A news analysis in the New York Times that will surely be blast e-mailed by Democrats today judges that the "conventional wisdom" about reform's troubles "might be wrong." Why? Because a) public support, though tepid, remains mostly unchanged since the start of August; b) "critical players in the health care industry remain at the negotiating table"; and c) "despite tensions between moderate and liberal Democrats, there is broad agreement within the party over most of what a package would look like."
Max Baucus circulated a detailed draft of his reform proposal Tuesday, meeting with the Gang of Six and giving colleagues until 10 a.m. today to offer suggestions on the measure. The Wall Street Journal leads its story today with the assertion that Obama "will press for a government-run insurance option" in his speech tonight, even as opposition to the public plan appears to be growing in the House. Mike Ross said Tuesday he is now firmly opposed to the public option, while Steny Hoyer said -- as he has before -- that he could back a bill without that plank. The loss of Ross and other moderates would make Nancy Pelosi's task harder; she still wants to include a public option in the initial House bill but, Time points out, "she'll have to strongarm vulnerable freshmen and sophomore lawmakers to vote for the bill in order to pass it."
In the Senate, Chris Dodd has decided to remain as chairman of the Banking Committee rather than move over and replace the late Ted Kennedy as Senate HELP Chairman. That gives Tom Harkin the chance to take over the Health panel -- and a leading role in conference negotiations on a reform bill -- while Blanche Lincoln, who faces a potentially tough reelection race, gets to take over the Agriculture Committee gavel. Dodd's decision may disappoint financial services industry lobbyists, who had been hoping Dodd would move to HELP because they preferred the idea of Tim Johnson atop the Banking panel.
Remember when Obama's address to the nation's schoolchildren was supposed to be really controversial? Seems like so long ago. In the end, the president's address Tuesday generated little heat, even drawing praise from conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Pat Toomey. Laura Bush also chimed in with her support. Many school districts still chose not to air the speech, perhaps because they made their decisions before the text was released when the partisan debate was still going strong.
Looking abroad, a New York Times reporter who had been held captive by the Taliban was freed Tuesday night in a commando raid, though his Afghan interpreter was killed in the fight. The Afghan election, the Times writes, "has put the Obama administration in an awkward spot: trying to balance its professed determination to investigate mounting allegations of corruption and vote-rigging while not utterly alienating the man who seems likely to remain the country’s leader for another five years." Meanwhile, Time writes, Obama is trying to restart Middle East peace talks, hoping to make an announcement on the subject during the upcoming UN General Assembly. Obama will this month be the first U.S. president to chair the UN Security Council.
September 9, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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