Sixteen years ago this month, a popular young Democratic president went before a joint session of Congress to sell his major domestic policy initiative -- healthcare reform -- and failed utterly. That chief executive, of course, was Bill Clinton, and tonight the country will see whether the implosion that crippled his administration in the years that followed also will afflict President Obama.
Obama already has established himself alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as one of the great presidential orators in modern history. On Tuesday -- after a long weekend of partisan hysteria -- the president delivered an intelligent and quite moving address to America's students. In a session with Virginia high school students beforehand, he also took a variety of personal questions that he answered with stunning candor and directness.
By stressing the traditionally "conservative" issues of family and personal responsibility in the speech to students, Obama disarmed a good bit of the regular Republican opposition. GOP regulars from former First Lady Laura Bush to Newt Gingrich hailed the president's talk as something "every student" needed to hear. One of the lessons here is that much of the most vociferous opposition to this president comes from the talk radio/Internet wing of the American polity rather than from the Republican Party, which still is struggling to find a renewed sense of itself.
That suggests that if Obama is going to succeed tonight, he needs to adopt the same approach and tone that made his education address a success.
Americans historically embrace the notion of healthcare reform in the abstract, and then draw back when the specifics are put on the table, because those inevitably are complicated and, as such, subject to distortion by the special interests that profit from the current mess with all its inefficiencies and inequities. The problem is that Americans who have no health insurance coverage remain a distinctly powerless minority -- though the recent downturn and jobless recovery have swelled their ranks.
Presented with the uncertainty of what the changes will mean for them, most Americans -- whose insurance is barely adequate, or in many cases inadequate -- decide that the prudent choice is the devil they know, which means the status quo. That's particularly true of older Americans worried that any change will involve a diminution of the Medicare benefits on which so many of them depend. No other segment of the American public follows the healthcare debate with the avidity of older citizens, and -- because they vote in such high numbers -- no proposal that fails to address their understandable anxieties has a snowball's chance in hell of congressional passage. Nor should it.
If Obama is going to succeed where so many have failed before, he needs to give a speech tonight that takes all this into account. He needs to do, in fact, precisely what he did with the nation's students Tuesday:
First, he needs to tell a comprehensible, plain-spoken story about what it is his administration proposes and what enacting those proposals will achieve for everyone. There's probably no area of public policy where the conceptual gap between wonkish, systemic prescriptions and the flesh-and-blood human needs at issue is so great. Nobody wants to hear the details of health insurance cooperatives; they want to know how you're going to make sure their sick child or ailing spouse or declining parent is going to be taken care of without having to leap through either the government's or some insurance company's bureaucratic hoops.
Second, Obama needs to cast this story in personal terms, just as he did his education address and the meeting with students that preceded it. For better or worse, in our political marketplace of ideas, it's the personal that creates credibility. The president's advice to students carried the weight it did because it was clear it grew out of painful personal experience.
Third, the complexities of healthcare reform are obvious, but Obama needs to duplicate something in his address to Congress tonight that elevated not only his talk to students Tuesday but his earlier addresses on sensitive questions such as race: He needs to avoid any hint of talking down to people.
No other politician of his generation has demonstrated the ability to communicate directly with the American people as one serious person to another. If Obama is going to rescue not only healthcare reform but his administration from political disaster, that's the mode in which he needs to address Congress and the American people tonight.