In many ways, the president’s speech Wednesday night to Congress and the nation, and the entire week that led up to it, can be told through the story of two walks.
One week ago, President Obama exited the West Wing from the Cabinet Room, strolled a short distance along the Colonnade and onto the South Lawn, and boarded his Marine One helicopter for a ride to the presidential retreat at Camp David.
He was headed for a four-day minivacation with his family, but as the press would find out a few hours later, as he walked to the chopper under a bright sun he had just decided to stake his presidency on a speech to a joint session of Congress. It was a doubling down on health care reform, which had gone badly for him during the previous two months.
The president was accompanied to the helicopter only by aide Reggie Love, who walked a safe distance behind him so as to not intrude on the pictures being taken by TV cameras and news photographers. Obama looked grim. He made only a short wave to the cameras and a few reporters standing on the South Lawn driveway, and then walked, head down, to the helicopter. Numerous reporters remarked to one another afterward that he did not look happy. His stride was a bit uncertain, and he looked to be lost in thought.
As Obama flew the short flight up to the Catoctin Mountains, he may have wondered how things had come to the point where he was being forced to use up so much political capital, such an important trump card as a speech to a joint session, to try and regain momentum on his signature issue.
But one week later, he had indeed recaptured at least some of the positive feeling he had lost in such dramatic fashion during the long, hot summer. A speech Monday to a union crowd in Cincinnati went well from a public relations point of view for the White House, with the reporting focused on the president’s energized demeanor and not on the fact that nothing he said was new. His detractors looked silly for trying to demonize his speech to school students on Tuesday, when Obama gave a tough talk about personal responsibility, a message he himself pointed out was “very conservative.” And most of the public discussion for days leading up to the speech focused on what the president would say or not say. The speech had sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and there was no room for talk of anything else.
The stakes were high, but Obama had regained the initiative. And it showed as he stepped out of Marine One on his return from a morning trip to New York.
One week to the day after his slow trudge out of the White House to the chopper, the president walked the same course in reverse, off the helicopter and into the White House, but this time quickly, with confidence and a bit of a swagger, if you looked closely. He leaned into the cockpit of the chopper on his way out, thanking the pilot, and stepped out onto the top step with a strong and broad smile, giving an enthusiastic wave to the small crowd of well-wishers gathered on the driveway across from the press. After the wave, he did not look up again on his way back to the Oval Office. But his pace across the lawn, across the driveway and up the walk to the Oval Office was anything but a slog. Instead, it was the determined and even excited gait of a president who was still editing his speech on the helicopter, which he was.
Having reached the door to the Oval Office, Obama looked at his wristwatch. It was 2:39 p.m., five hours and 21 minutes until he had to deliver the still-unfinished speech, the biggest of his life and of his presidency. He grabbed the door, pulled it open and walked into his office.
— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times