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Politics

* With asterisk as necessary to account for future contingencies. If our country gets attacked again, or if there’s some other sort of major unanticipated crisis, foreign or domestic, that moment and the President’s response to it may outshine everything else. But in the ordinary course of business, it doesn’t get much bigger than this:

President Barack Obama will address a joint session of Congress on health care reform in prime time on Wednesday, Sept. 9, a senior official tells POLITICO.

Obama will receive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the White House the day before for a previously scheduled sit-down.

The last time a president addressed a joint session of Congress that wasn’t a State of the Union, or the traditional first address by a new president, was Sept. 20, 2001, when President George W. Bush spoke on the war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks.

Back in July, I urged President Obama to do exactly this:

If and when the Democrats are at the stage where they have a plan to frame the discussion, then President Obama needs to give a speech. Not a town-hall forum, and not a press conference. And not multiple speeches. A speech. A “big” speech, and probably a somewhat long speech. A make-or-break speech in prime time on a busy television night. Preferably one from the Oval Office, or perhaps in front of a joint session of Congress — not some bullsh*t at a steel mill in Toledo. This is not as risky as it sounds, since the President is very good at delivering big speeches. But he’s probably only going to get one shot.

The odds of any health care bill at all passing are at this point are pretty tenuous: still probably more likely than not, but it may not be a very good bill, and it may not make the Democrats any more popular once it gets signed (although failing to pass health care reform would almost certainly be even worse). To stretch this into a baseball analogy, this is not really a moment where Obama is being the “closer” and protecting a lead. It’s more like 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. 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.

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, and not the dog days of July and August where Obama’s approval rating was chipped away at one lost news cycle at a time.

The conservative critique, exemplified by Mary Katherine Ham at the Weekly Standard, seems to be that Obama has already said too much about health care and that another speech can’t possibly help him:

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.”

Does he really think another episode is going to help?

This argument has it pretty much backward. People like Mary Katherine Ham have heard Obama talk alot about health care — but that’s because it’s Mary Katherine Ham’s job to pay attention to everything the White House does. It’s not the job of an ordinary voter in Ohio or Florida. And whether design or by poor execution, Obama hasn’t really had a moment that would resonate with those folks. Two thirds people like these are confused about what the Democrats’ health care package actually entails, and are presumably quite willing to get some clarity from Obama.

I do think, indeed, that the White House has sometimes played it too cutely with the President’s public appearances. A “natural” setting like a town-hall usually comes across as being more contrived than simply speaking directly to the public from the Oval Office; the “transparency” of a press conference usually comes across as being more pre-spun than simply addressing the Congress from the floor of the Capitol. (This is something that Ronald Reagan, among others, understood.) Arguably, there should have been fewer of those sorts of moments. But that doesn’t mean that this speech is superfluous; if anything, the steady but only marginally effective trickle of background radiation from the White House makes a moment like this all the more necessary.

The truth is, in fact, that this is a speech the conservatives at the Weekly Standard and elsewhere out to be pretty nervous about. When Bill Clinton delivered his big speech to the Congress on health care 16 years ago, his approval rating shot up by 10 points almost instantenously.

Now, Clinton wound up squandering that and then some (and be prepared — if Obama does get some sort of bounce out of the speech, some of it will probably evaporate almost immediately). But Obama’s timing is better than Clinton’s, coming toward the end rather than the beginning of the process, and at a moment where the press corps is exceedingly skeptical and where expectations may be unrealistically low. And even a temporary bounce might prove sufficient, since the health care bill has already passed out of 4 out of 5 Congressional committees and doesn’t have that many more hurdles to clear. The more successful Obama’s speech is, the more eager Democrats will be to engage in a 4-6 week sprint to get a health care bill to the President’s desk while they have momentum on their side.

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