The last time a president addressed a joint session of Congress on health care, the teleprompter broke. Unable to read the paper before him without his glasses, which he'd left at home, Bill Clinton didn’t miss a beat. He gave the first nine minutes of his speech without any text whatsoever, effortlessly citing statistics, telling stories, and exhorting a skeptical Congress. He did this while the words of a seven-month-old economic speech were whizzing around on the prompter plates in front of him, first forward at hyper-speed, then backward, as the White House Communications Agency desperately tried to find the health-care speech.
By waiting to engage until this late date, the president has limited his options. The battle lines have been drawn.
Later, after the accolades, I found myself alone with the president at the White House. "I've got to know," I said. "When you were standing there and realized the wrong speech was in the prompter, what was going through your mind?" The Big Dog draped his long arm around my shoulder and said softly, "I just thought, 'Well, Lord, I guess you're testing me. OK, here goes.'"
XTRA INSIGHT:• Sally Denton: Giving Harry Reid Hell • Gallery: Obama as a Musical The Good Lord is testing Barack Obama now. How he meets that test will determine the health security of millions of Americans. The fact that he will address a special joint session of Congress means the stakes could not be higher. And I could not be happier.
Barack Obama is a big-game player. Audacious odds are his forte, and big speeches are his weapon of choice. He cleared the stench of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's "God DAMN America" with a clear-eyed, well-reasoned speech that contextualized black grievances on the one hand, while empathizing with white resentment on the other.
If race is the hardest issue in America, then the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the hardest in the world. Again, President Obama used a speech to define the issue. His historic address in Cairo was a masterful balancing act; he criticized Israeli settlements on the one hand, while stressing the unbreakable American-Israeli bond on the other. He offered friendship and understanding to Muslims on the one hand, and condemned those who embrace anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism on the other.
But if these two great addresses are the template for Obama's speech on health care, he will be making a serious mistake. The brilliant Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos notes that the Olympian detachment of those remarks is not what this moment calls for, and I think Alex is right. This is not a time for careful calibration; it is not a moment for even-handed nuance or an appeal for bipartisan comity. It’s too late for that. By waiting to engage until this late date, the president has limited his options. The battle lines have been drawn. After accepting 183 Republican amendments, Congressional Democrats have yet to receive even one Republican vote for health reform. The issue is losing public support and the president's party is losing altitude in the polls. The Republicans are perhaps too wedded to their rigid ideology, or too addicted to insurance lobbyists' money, or maybe too enamored with "breaking Obama," as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said. We will either have a Democratic health-reform bill or nothing.
Rather than a rhetorical balancing act, Obama needs to use another style: the hard-charging, change-oriented rhetoric he used at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in November 2007. With his back to the wall and his presidential campaign at risk of dying in the cradle, Mr. Obama gave the speech of his life. He excoriated "Scooter Libby justice, and Brownie incompetence, and Karl Rove politics." He then characterized the politics of his principal Democratic opponent as insufficient to the moment, saying, "Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do." And he closed with a powerful, bracing, challenging call for change: "I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.' Because I believe that there's such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us. I don't want to wake up four years from now and find out that millions of Americans still lack health care because we couldn't take on the insurance industry." In Iowa, Barack Obama drew clear lines. He named his heroes and his enemies. He outlined the stakes and made it clear which side he stood on.
That is the model I want to see Obama use when he addresses the Congress. Not as blatantly partisan as a speech to the Iowa Democratic Party, of course, but just as fearlessly damning of the failed ideas that got us in this mess and just as daring in calling us to chart a new course.
And, by the way, Barack Obama gave that powerful Iowa speech without a written text, without notes—and without a teleprompter.
Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.