WASHINGTON — Amid a summer of setbacks, President Obama's speech tonight before a joint session of Congress is a crucial moment that could determine whether he will be able to reestablish his presidency as what John F. Kennedy called the "vital center of action" in the government.
Apart from reviving his healthcare plan, the president needs to reassert his grip on a political apparatus that soon will determine whether his agenda succeeds or fails.
The summer left Obama in a weakened position. Once the dominant communicator in American politics, he has seen the healthcare debate sidetracked by false warnings that government "death panels" would be employed to snuff out Grandma. Distractions arose over past remarks made by mid-level aides. Even a benign back-to-school speech that Obama gave to students Tuesday became a vehicle for conservative activists to warn of presidential "indoctrination."
Obama's poll numbers slipped during the summer break. But more worrisome for the White House is the power shift that occurred as Congress engaged in the details of the healthcare overhaul that was a centerpiece of the president's 2008 campaign.
In the Obama arsenal, a speech is often the preferred method of coping with political crises. White House aides said Obama would use his 5 p.m. Pacific time appearance to specify what he wanted in a healthcare bill and revive its prospects.
That will require some deft maneuvering. Obama must find the right mix of provisions to draw in conservative Democrats and perhaps a few Republicans without alienating liberal lawmakers.
One lawmaker on Tuesday laid out a proposal that could become a model for attracting moderates. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, proposed creating nonprofit insurance cooperatives in an attempt to cut premium costs while raising the quality of care. Baucus also would impose taxes on high-end insurance plans to help cover the cost of extending health coverage to more Americans.
His proposal seems likely to fall short of its goal of drawing substantial Republican support, but it could bring in moderate lawmakers, including some Republicans.
Beyond the healthcare battle, Obama is facing a deteriorating military landscape in Afghanistan. This year has been the most lethal for American forces, with 190 deaths. Obama also is confronting tough diplomatic challenges in the Middle East and Iran.
On the economic front, unemployment is closing in on 10% and is expected to exceed that threshold in the coming months.
Wading into these fights, Obama will be better-positioned if he prevails in the healthcare debate, liberal supporters said.
Robert Borosage, co- director of the Campaign for America's Future, said that healthcare "is the prism by which all of the achievements to date will be seen. If it looks like he's rolled on this or frustrated on this, it will hurt significantly across the board and on the rest of his agenda."
And whether Obama succeeds in remaking healthcare could shape the rest of his presidency, said Robert B. Reich, a former Labor secretary in the Clinton administration.
"He has huge fights ahead with lobbyists and special interests," Reich said. "They're all watching. They're all waiting to see how he manages. . . . The weeks ahead will either enhance his power and authority or it may diminish it."
For much of the summer, Obama was forced into a reactive role as the political climate became highly polarized. A reenergized conservative base flocked to town halls hosted by Democratic lawmakers, and raised pointed objections to the president's healthcare plans.
On Sunday, environmental advisor Van Jones resigned. He had been targeted by conservative talk show hosts, including Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, as a "radical" associate of Obama's. Jones came under sharp criticism for coarse comments he had made about Republicans and for signing a petition questioning whether the U.S. government had a hand in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
White House aides said that they had not forced his resignation, but they conceded that he had become a distraction.
Another target for conservatives is Cass R. Sunstein, Obama's nominee to be White House regulatory chief. A constitutional law professor, Sunstein has come under attack for his writings on guns and animal rights. In a 2002 essay, he suggested banning hunting when the sole purpose was "human recreation."
On the eve of an expected vote in the Senate to confirm Sunstein, several hunting groups have mobilized to defeat his nomination.
An Obama administration spokesman, Kenneth Baer, said in response: "Cass has been very clear in his writing as well as in his testimony to the Senate governmental affairs committee that he is a strong believer in the 2nd Amendment."