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By Jay Cost

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Obama To Give Historic Speech...Again

Another historic, monumental speech from the 44th President of the United States. He's averaging about one of these every three weeks now, isn't he?

To say that this President is overexposed is an understatement. He was overexposed six months ago when he let his kids appear on the cover of Jann Wenner's trashy supermarket celeb mag. I'm not sure what prefix to use, but "over-" does not sufficiently describe a President who is now doing 30-second spots for George Lopez's new late night show on TBS. Seriously.

What exactly is this speech supposed to do? Let's ditch the metaphors - "game changer," "ninth inning" - and use words that point to actual things: health care reform is in trouble because of differences among factions of the Democratic Party. The compromises that moderates like Ben Nelson require are apparently too much for liberals like Anthony Weiner to accept. How is a speech supposed to overcome this? It would either have to: (a) propose a third-way solution that both sides can agree to, or (b) convince one side or the other that it needs to adjust its stance.

Should we really expect a speech to do that, considering all the other things the President intends to do in it?

I'd say no. I think this will be little more than a change in tone - perhaps from cool/slightly mocking Obama to angry/forceful Obama. From the looks of it, the President is still planning to make all the same points he's been hammering for months. He'll ask for bipartisan cooperation while remaining cagey on the public option (a deal breaker for 99% of the Republican caucus). He will again insist the time for debate is over and the time for action is now. He'll make a not-terribly-compelling case about how this somehow relates to the current economic morass, even though the benefits do not kick in for years. He'll fearlessly stand up to Republican straw men, who never offer anything except disingenuous attacks.

Why is the White House doing this? I think there are two answers that kind of relate to each other.

First, it has begun to believe its own spin that the President is good at giving game changing speeches. But he isn't really. Nobody is. If the game could change because of a speech, the game would constantly be changing because lots of people can give a decent speech, especially when they have a TelePrompTer. President Obama is a compelling speaker to a relatively narrow segment of the country - namely, African Americans and white social liberals. He inspired them to support his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton - but other voters (including many in his own party) were harder to win over. His Philadelphia speech on race was no Cooper Union; it merely distracted attention from the main question of why he spent so many years in that church. His numbers still fell, and he struggled through the rest of the primaries, even losing South Dakota on the day he declared victory. He then gave big speeches in Europe and Denver, but it was only thanks to the financial panic of last September that he had a breakthrough.

Still, his speechifying seems to give some people a thrill up the leg - and the idea that he's not just a good speaker, but a game changing speaker, has become conventional wisdom. I think the White House believes that this is actually true.

Second, it does not know what else to do. It looks like Congress is at something less than square one. There is no passable compromise that has been proposed - nothing that can win enough votes in the center without losing the left flank. But now the "Gang of Six" has basically broken up, public approval has tanked, moderates are scared, and if there isn't bad blood on the Democratic side of the aisle there is at least a lot of finger pointing. If Humpty Dumpty breaks and you don't know how to put him back together - why not give a speech and boldly proclaim how important it is to put him back together?

As I wrote last week, I think he has to scale this proposal back. Rome was not built in a day, after all. I think he should propose some insurance reforms that can garner the level of support needed in the Senate - winning over Republicans like Grassley, Voinovich, Collins but losing DeMint, Coburn, and Inhofe. If he would just lower his sights a bit, stop grasping for that once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of 1/7th of the United States economy - he could win the kind of big bipartisan victory he had talked about during the campaign.

One thing this might do is end the internal battle in his own party. By demanding comprehensive reform, the President has raised the stakes, perhaps too high. The liberal intractability on the public option is completely understandable. If this is "the moment" for health care reform, then it is imperative that they get their key policy goals accomplished. If that doesn't happen now, they cannot expect that to happen anytime soon (if ever). But what they require is simply too much for moderate Democrats, especially those in McCain- and Bush-voting districts. If the President scaled back his ambitions, the final bill would not be as far to the left as the liberals like, but since it is not comprehensive they could at least plan to fight for the public option another day. Then, Obama could pick up enough moderates to pass it, and he could declare victory.

Incidentally, this is how most legislation gets passed in the Congress.

-Jay Cost