5 Things to Watch For in Obama's Speech

5 Things to Watch For in Obama's Speech

By Mike Memoli - September 9, 2009

For the sixth time since taking office, President Obama tonight appears in prime time to address the nation. This time, however, he'll be speaking directly to Congress in what is a rare, non-State of the Union speech by a commander-in-chief on Capitol Hill. It's only the 18th time in the last half century that a president has addressed a joint session of Congress for something other than a State of the Union address, according to the House historian. Coverage leading up to the address has included terms like "make-or-break," and some are even calling this Obama's most important speech as president.

White House aides have declined to say too much about what the president will say, other than to promise that he will finally "answer many off the big questions" that have lingered months into this debate. Whether Obama lives up to that billing will be the headline. But there are a number of subplots we'll be monitoring as well.

1. Which Obama Shows Up?

In a speech Monday to members of the AFL-CIO in Cincinnati, we saw the return of a campaign-style Barack Obama. Rather than the staid, cool figure motioning only to turn from one teleprompter to another scene for much of his presidency, we saw the feisty Democratic leader leaning into his microphone, pumping his fist as he passionately made the case for passing reform this year. One liberal analyst remarked, "This is the guy I voted for. I sure hope he shows up Wednesday night." But will he?

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that his demeanor would be "a little less labor rally and a little bit more Congress." And certainly it would seem a bit inappropriate to see a president chanting, "Fired up! Ready to go!" from the Congressional rostrum. But even dating back to the days of candidate Obama, he found a way to sound less like a college professor at debates and give his remarks more zip as the campaign wore on. Showing more passion than he has in his Rose Garden and East Room addresses may be indicative.

2. Can He Move The Spotlight Off The Public Option?

From the moment the health care debate began, it seems the battle line was the public option. President Obama has consistently said he prefers there be a public option in a plan, calling it the most effective way to ensure competition in the market place and subsequently keep down costs. Over time, the discussion evolved into just how strongly Obama was willing to fight for a public option.

It's tough enough for the White House that conservative Republicans have vowed to do whatever they can to hold up any legislation with a public option. But the bigger problem has been the battle within the Democratic Party. Some have sought compromise, either through so-called co-ops or more recently with a "trigger option." But more liberal members, and many of the interest groups that the party counts as allies, are adamant that reform without a public component is no reform worth passing.

Obama could firmly come down within one of those camps in his party, and hope he still has enough sway to convince the other to come for the ride. But more than that, look for the president to, in a manner of speaking, vote present - maintain he still supports the idea of a public option, while urging both Democrats and Republicans not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and make it clear that other components of reform must not be held hostage in the process.

3. How Do Democrats React?

Part of the fun of these joint session addresses by Congress is watching the see-saw of audience reaction - a party standing to applaud the president while the other sits on its hands. But given the tightrope Obama will be walking on the public option, one might as well keep an eye solely on the Democratic side of the aisle.

A real rift appeared to be developing Tuesday as members of the House Democratic leadership offered contrasting views of whether the public option would be negotiable. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after a meeting at the White House, called a public option "essential" to passing a bill in the House, surmising that the majority of her caucus stood with her in that belief. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer signaled the bill may not survive both Houses of Congress with a public option in tact. Hoyer has worked closely with the Blue Dog Democrats. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), that group's point person on health reform, came out firmly against a public option altogether this week.

Howard Dean has threatened primary races against any Democrats who don't support a public option, and he has a growing number of supporters in the progressive wing of the party. Who are the members who are talking to reporters after the speech? It's the ones who are silent that will tell you who didn't hear what they wanted from the president.

4. How Do Republicans React?

August will be remembered for the unruly town hall meetings, where ordinary citizens and the occasional liberal or conservative interest group plant adamantly argued in favor of or opposition to reform. Republicans hailed the spirit of those town halls. So does Obama's new vulnerability empower them to do more in these final months to block what would be a major legislative achievement? How often, if at all, will the minority party applaud the president's remarks?

The party's leadership promises a respectful hearing tonight. "House Republicans want to hear what the President has to say, but after the public outcry this August, it's clear the American people don't want a new speech, they want a new plan," House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement to RCP. "We hope the President will hit the reset button on health care next week and announce that Democratic leaders are scrapping their current proposals and are ready to start over."

The White House, for its part, says it won't be paying any special attention to the reception President Obama gets. "I think we're probably less concerned with welcome and reaction than we are with what the President is communicating to the country," a White House spokesperson said. The aide would not say whether Obama's speech would contain any specific outreach to the opposite party. In an interview aired Wednesday morning, the president himself told ABC News that he wanted to "make sure that Democrats and Republicans understand that I'm open to new ideas, that we're not being rigid and ideological about this thing." But, he ended with what amounts to an ultimatum: "We do intend to get something done this year."

5. Will Death Panels Live On?

The White House said that Obama's speech would run about 30 minutes. How much of that time is spent talking about what will not in the bill versus what will be? "He will obviously clear up any confusion about what's not in health care reform," Gibbs said Tuesday. "I have every belief that when he finishes the speech tomorrow, the American people will be able to put aside some of the ridiculous falsehoods that have been perpetrated these past few weeks," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after a meeting with Obama at the White House.

The administration devoted quite a few valuable presidential hours solely to fact-checking and debunking Republican claims about health care legislation in August. How much Obama continues doing so tonight will indicate to some extent how confident he is that they've regained control of the message. One could also argue that it's to the president's advantage to argue that Republicans are more concerned with scare tactics like "death panels" than offering their own real alternatives.

Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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