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Commentary: Obama's moment of truth

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama's first year as president could be in the balance
  • He says Obama's speech to Congress is his most important as president
  • He says previous presidents have used the forum successfully
  • Zelizer: Obama must combine the best of earlier presidential speeches
By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Julian Zelizer says Obama should use previous speeches to Congress as models for his health care speech.

Julian Zelizer says Obama should use previous speeches to Congress as models for his health care speech.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- On Wednesday, President Obama will make the most important speech of his presidency. We hear this phrase so much that it has become a cliché. But, in this case, the cliché is accurate.

President Obama suffered a politically brutal month in August. The opponents of health care dominated public debate about the legislation circulating in Congress. Public approval ratings for the president and his health care plan, as well as the Democratic Congress, have fallen. Democrats have become internally divided.

It is possible Obama could end his first year in the White House without a major piece of legislation beyond the economic stimulus.

For a president who began the year with his supporters talking about a transformative leader who would equal Presidents Lincoln or Roosevelt, this would be a major disappointment.

When Obama delivers his speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he joins a long list of presidents who have used this technique to build public support behind a decision or legislation. A look back reveals some lessons that might be useful as the president shapes the final text of his message.

Some speeches have solidified the public confidence in the leadership skills of the president.

On December 8, 1941, the day after Japanese forces had attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt spoke to Congress. In the speech, Roosevelt's words demonstrated a kind of decisiveness that would help to rally the public around the White House as the war escalated.

President Roosevelt explained to Congress what had happened and called on the nation to once and for all abandon its resistance toward entering war.

"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory . . . Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger."

Sometimes a president can motivate the nation to reach beyond what seems possible.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

The speech came at a time when Americans were still reeling from the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and a Russian cosmonaut entering space in April 1961.

Importantly, Kennedy was blunt about costs: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." The speech was a success, as was the program.

Speeches can also be used to embrace a moral cause. This was the case with LBJ's talk about voting rights in March 1965. Originally, President Johnson had opposed voting rights legislation, fearing that it would create a vicious backlash by opponents of civil rights.

But the civil rights movement would not take no for an answer. During a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, the police violently attacked the protesters after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The media called this day "Bloody Sunday."

The president decided to push for legislation. On March 15, he delivered one of the most powerful speeches of his career to a joint session of Congress. In the speech, Johnson placed Selma in a long tradition of fighting for freedom that began with the American Revolution: "This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose."

Johnson ended the speech with a dramatic proclamation, openly embracing the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, when he said that, "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And, we shall . . overcome."

When the president finished his talk, Congress burst out in applause. Like Martin Luther King Jr., many civil rights activists watched the speech with tears in their eyes.

One day after the speech, Alabama Sen. Lister Hill asked Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia: "Dick, tell me something. You trained that boy . . . What happened to that boy?" Russell turned to Hill with a disappointed face and said, "I just don't know Lister.... He's a turncoat if there ever was one." Congress passed the legislation.

On other occasions the addresses have inspired confidence in what a White House and the nation could achieve. Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington at a time when many Americans had become despondent about the potential for ever reviving the economy. Stagflation and unemployment had devastated the American dream in the 1970s.

Reagan was determined to reverse the interventionist economic policies that Democrats had championed. OMB Director David Stockman suggested to the president, "An opening in which old, failed policy principles are set up in straw-man fashion: this sets the strategy for a totally new framework for national economic policy."

On February 18, 1981, after reviewing the litany of economic problems, Reagan declared that "We don't have an option of living with inflation and its attendant tragedy . . . We have an alternative, and that is the program for economic recovery. True, it'll take time for the favorable effects of our program to be felt. So, we must begin now. The people are watching and waiting. They don't demand miracles. They do expect us to act. Let us act together."

Two days after the speech, two-thirds of those polled by Washington Post/ABC News expressed their support for the president's message.

These speeches don't always work, as was the case with President Clinton's address calling for health care reform. And Obama has an especially tough task ahead given that this speech comes after his opponents have been able to reshape the debate for a month and public confidence in him and the plan is falling.

Nonetheless, Obama must draw lessons from all of the successful examples. He needs to achieve many goals at once.

He has to assert his leadership as FDR did in 1941 because there are now growing doubts that he is in control of this debate and on top of this policy. Democrats want a president who will carry them through this and other tough struggles rather than a president who they need to save politically.

Voters -- Democrats and Republicans -- need to have confidence that Obama knows what the right answers are in this extraordinarily complex issue.

The president also needs to echo the motivational message of JFK as well as the moral daring of LBJ by reminding Americans of the broader imperative that he feels is behind his call for health care reform and to offer a response to the criticism that more government will only make the condition of health care worse.

Finally, Obama must tap into the rhetoric of Reagan by instilling confidence that the country can achieve these reforms and that we can afford them (obviously, with a very different message about the role of government).

This might be the last opportunity to seize back some of the public and to re-energize support for his agenda. If he fails, it can be a long winter for the administration.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

All About Health Care PolicyBarack ObamaLyndon Johnson

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