Obama confronts limitation of words

It was a speech that lifted him from obscurity in 2002. And it was a speech that launched him on a path to the White House in 2004.

And there were countless speeches across the country that got people “fired up and ready to go” during the long campaign for the presidency in 2008.

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But over the last two years, the speeches stopped working for President Obama, demonstrating the limits of oral persuasion.

So it’s hard to imagine that on Thursday, with his presidency in a nosedive, Obama will be able to turn things around by way of oratory.

The president has said for weeks that he will offer concrete, specific policies that will turn the economy around if Congress gets on board. But short of showing up with a few million job applications, Obama seems unlikely to be able to turn around an economy still suffering an epic housing collapse made worse by the European debt crisis.

The president hinted in August that the new strategy for his reelection would be to target Congress and blast and blame Republicans for standing in the way of recovery. 

Democrats were thrilled that a motivated Obama was unafraid to show some anger and fire and was ready to fight.

Then he walked into a screen door when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) forced him to reschedule his address to a joint session of Congress that the White House initially scheduled to bigfoot the GOP presidential debate. 

The embarrassment from last week’s flap over timing will fade. What won’t is the perception of a weakened Obama being pushed around by House Republicans.

Thursday’s speech could be Obama’s last chance to turn that perception around. If he falls short, it won’t matter what kind of campaign he runs, because being perceived as a weak leader is one polling category voters don’t overlook.

If Professor Obama walks onto the chamber floor Thursday and offers yet another explanation for why the economy is sick, people will change the channel. 

Democrats are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They have been waiting and waiting for the Obama they voted for to stand up and fight.

“The president needs to lay out clear goals about what he wants to see and proposals that will get us there, but more than that he must FIGHT for those proposals,” one Democratic strategist wrote in an email. “He needs a full-court press that puts Republicans on defense, calling out those who stand in the way by name, for instance.”

If that sounds like a familiar plea from Democrats, that’s because it is. From healthcare to financial reform to the tax fight to the government shutdown to the debt ceiling, Obama has come to be viewed by Democrats as a weakling.

So why is there any reason to believe he won’t come up short again? 

“He comes up short until he comes up big. He’s very good at fighting his way out of a corner,” one strategist said. “It’s just so damned frustrating to have to be in the corner.”

White House officials are warning that they do not expect one speech to turn things around. Thursday’s address, they said, will be the beginning of a campaign to force Republicans to act on jobs. 

The White House will push the elements of the speech and the new, tough Obama while the campaign focuses its sights on the Republican jobs speeches. The president will hit the road, blasting Republicans for playing politics while the economy burns. 

Still, for all practical purposes, Obama’s campaign hopes rest on Thursday’s speech, which will set the tone for the critical fall debate. It won’t matter where Obama travels if nobody thinks he can do anything or if they’ve already given up on him.

Monday in Detroit, Obama got worked up, and the crowd rewarded him with chants of “Four more years!” 

The simple truth is that Obama is getting ready to get in a dogfight, and he has abused his allies to the point that they might not join him.

Liberals want to fight for Obama. But they can’t bring themselves to help someone who won’t help himself. This is the moment when Obama can summon his significant political abilities and channel the anger of Main Street. 

The president needs to create jobs. Short of that, he needs to create contrast with Republicans and anger over their policies. 

People are already angry. A lot of them are waiting for Barack Obama to get angry too. Even if it is just in a speech.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.