Three speeches in three days provided illustrations of the uses and the limitations of the bully pulpit.
The Labor Day speech at an AFL-CIO picnic was President Obama in his favorite campaign element: a sympathetic, nay, fervent audience that he could fire up as they fired him up. The labor federation no longer represents a majority of American wage earners, but it is a reliable ally in the cause of health care reform.
The speech at the Arlington, Va., high school Tuesday was Obama at his most inspirational. Those parents who boycotted the speech fearing indoctrination should feel embarrassed. He used the majesty of his office to set an example for young students of how one can rise from adversity with the aid of education. It was in the best tradition of laying down an example for a young generation.
The health care speech was designed to deal with a trickier problem. A great deal of public support for fixing the health care system had drifted away during the August recess, partly because of raucous opposition at town hall meetings, but more because of confusion about what was being proposed.
Whether the president can recover some of the lost ground remains to be seen. But legislation is not created by speeches alone. It is instructive to listen to some of the Lyndon Johnson Oval Office tapes of 1965 when he was fighting to enact the Medicare legislation. It was a strictly retail operation — one member at a time being told how badly the president needed his vote.
The speech Wednesday may clear the air some. It may dispel some of the misinformation about illegal immigrants and pulling the plug on grandma. The outline of a plan may begin to become visible.
But then comes the hard part, the question of whether the president is willing to spend hour after hour on the phone or in person with legislators, one at a time, doing the kind of work that you can't do at mass meetings.