The Biggest Moment of His Presidency? Well, Yes*Here's a bet for Nate: When the histories of the Obama Administration are written, I'll wager that the Speech To Congress On Health Care will be a minor factor. At best. Most likely, a minor moment even within the history of the battle over health care reform.
* With asterisk as necessary to account for future contingencies. If our country gets attacked again, or if there's some other sort of major unanticipated crisis, foreign or domestic, that moment and the President's response to it may outshine everything else. But in the ordinary course of business, it doesn't get much bigger than this.
Very, very few presidential speeches matter all that much. What does matter are decisions. Some of the key decisions so far include: hiring Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff; other personnel choices, including the whole Daschle drama; choosing to let Congressional committees draft bills; the general structure of the policy (e.g. no single payer, public option, etc.); and choices about negotiating strategy, especially the choices involving attempting to buy off major interest groups. If you ask me what went wrong for Bill Clinton's health care initiative, I'd probably start with the failure to buy off interest groups, and the disastrous choice of Ira Magaziner to write the proposal (for a somewhat different view, see Paul Starr's helpful article from back in 1994). His speech to Congress was great. It got great reviews. It yielded a nice bump in the polls. And it really didn't matter very much to the eventual outcome.
Here's how Obama's speech will go: he'll likely get good reviews for it, because most presidential addresses to Congress get good reviews. Conservatives will blast it, perhaps on substance, but more likely they'll bring the crazy -- and whatever the crazy is will fill up Fox News for a couple of days, and denunciations of the crazy will fill up Maddow and Olbermann for a few days. Out in the country, Democrats will like the speech and Obama will likely recover some of the (fairly small) ground he's lost with them in the approval polls, at least for a while; Republicans won't watch, and if they do they won't like what they see. True independents and soft Republicans and Democrats will also likely move a bit towards the president for a short time. And then the next set of events will intervene, and the effects of the speech, which were never much to begin with, will dissipate.
Can a presidential speech matter? Sure, around the margins. I think Reagan's speech returning to work after the assassination attempt probably mattered a bit, for example. But lots of things matter around the margins.