Kennedy, Roosevelt, Lincoln — President Obama matched them all.
At least that was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s take on the president’s health care speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night.
“Last night, President Obama delivered what I believe to be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the Congress of the United States,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters Thursday at the opening of her weekly Capitol Hill news conference.
“He talked about his vision for America and the character of our country,” the California Democrat said. “He demonstrated knowledge and judgment on an issue of concern to America’s families — health care.”
Mr. Obama’s much-touted prime-time speech to a joint session of Congress was designed to retake the reins of a health care debate that veered out of the Democrats’ control during August. The next day, much remained unresolved about the details of the plan and divisions among Democratic lawmakers about a government-run health insurance option.
But Mrs. Pelosi’s estimation of the president as a wordsmith may prove a bit premature.
Historians will wait for the outcome of those fights and whether Mr. Obama wins before deciding whether his oratory was truly “great,” said Rick Shenkman, a presidential historian at George Mason University.
“I don’t know what Nancy Pelosi was thinking,” he said, questioning what criteria she used to rate Mr. Obama’s forensic skills.
He said Mr. Obama “got off a few good lines, I thought, but none that people are going to be quoting 50 years from now — let alone five months from now.”
Still, the president’s speech was punctuated with rhetorically ambitious passages, including the declaration, “Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do.”
Memorable, perhaps. But the competition for “one of the greatest speeches ever” is pretty stiff, even in the more limited category of oratory to joint sessions of Congress.
Congress technically is meeting in joint session for the inauguration of presidents, meaning Mr. Obama’s health care speech was competing with that of President Kennedy, who challenged Americans in his 1961 inaugural address to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Two decades earlier, Congress met in joint session to hear President Roosevelt rally them to war with his “date which will live in infamy” speech, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
A speech that many deem the greatest delivered to Congress was President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in which he tried to salve the wounds of a nation bloodied by civil war by urging both sides to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Beyond the presidents, the list of world leaders who have delivered notable speeches to joint sessions of Congress is long, and includes South African President Nelson Mandela, who in 1994 challenged Americans to make sure the “new world order” went beyond just rich countries, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who after the Sept. 11 attacks told lawmakers in a 2003 address that “destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.”
Steven A Miller
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