Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2009 / 18 Elul 5769
Obama's speech: Wrong setting for a sales job
By Byron York
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Barack Obama's health care speech on Wednesday will mark the first time he has asked the leaders of the House and Senate for the opportunity to make a special address to a joint session of Congress. And if the president truly is as politically savvy as his White House staff believes, he won't do it again anytime soon.
Putting aside the State of the Union address, which is a scheduled annual event, it's rare for a president to speak before a joint session of House and Senate.
George W. Bush did it just once, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bill Clinton also did it just once, when he made an appeal for his national health care plan in September 1993. George H.W. Bush gave just one joint address as well, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, leading to the first Gulf War.
The protocol of these events is that the president decides he wants to address Congress, sends a request, and Congress says yes; as far as anyone can tell, they've never turned a chief executive down. "I've never heard of an example of that," one Senate historian told me. "That's a courtesy that's always extended to the president."
But when a president makes such a rare request, he's sending a clear message that there is an emergency, or at least an urgent issue, that must be addressed in the most solemn national forum. Both Bushes spoke in a time of war, as did Richard Nixon during Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Is Obamacare such an issue? Hardly. So it will be the president's job to convince the public that the need to pass a national health care bill is so urgent that it ranks alongside war and other national emergencies.
It can't be done. No matter what Obama says on Wednesday, the audience will see the speech for what it is: A president speaking not as the nation's leader in time of crisis but rather as a salesman pushing a troubled product.
Sales jobs are the least successful joint addresses. Clinton's didn't work. And it hasn't been pointed out very often, but the president in the last half-century who used the joint session format the most was the one who got the least done: Jimmy Carter.
Carter gave three such addresses in his four years in office. (Ronald Reagan also gave three, but over eight years in the White House.) Carter began with a 1977 address on the energy crisis, which was, in fact, a crisis, but Carter didn't know what to do about it. He looked more lost than leader.
The White House believes Obama will fare better. Although his image as a great communicator has taken some hits after a string of unimpressive performances in non-teleprompter situations, the joint session speech will be in Obama's best format: a carefully scripted presentation in a dramatic venue.
So it's a sure bet the president will turn in a polished performance. His problem is that substance matters more than style. At this point, after a month of town halls and, most importantly, after the details of the various Democratic health care proposals have become known, Obamacare is damaged goods. The president could give the best speech of his life and still not convince the public that H.R. 3200, the grotesquely flawed House Democratic bill, would be a good thing for American health care.
So on Wednesday the White House, supposedly quite proficient in the communications department, will put the president in the wrong setting to sell the wrong product.
In January 1989, Ronald Reagan gave his last address to the American people. (He spoke from the Oval Office, not the Capitol.) In the speech, Reagan reflected on his image as a great communicator. "I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference; it was the content," Reagan said. "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things."
Reagan went on to explain that those great things "didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation - from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries."
That's what people look for in a speech as momentous as an address to a joint session of Congress. And that's why Barack Obama, no matter his talents, will not succeed on Wednesday.
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© 2009, NEA