WASHINGTON -- President Jimmy Carter once sent a note to an adviser extolling the importance of crisis to leadership. "When a president has authority to act unilaterally (as in a crisis), his leadership can be exerted. Otherwise, compromise, delay and confusion are more likely. It's our system. I like it."
Politicians, like the rest of us, are often victims of their wishes. Carter was eventually smacked by the waves of crisis he sought to ride.
But encouraging a sense of crisis is a traditional tool of executive leadership. And using a joint session of Congress to address a single domestic issue is the most dramatic expression of this approach.
Carter did it effectively in April 1977. He spoke of the energy crisis as "the moral equivalent of war." Energy resources were "simply running out." (Carter's CIA predicted worldwide oil shortages by the mid-1980s.) America needed to "cope with a crisis that otherwise would overwhelm us."
The speech had immediate influence. The number of Americans who viewed the energy crisis as a serious problem jumped nine points to 54 percent. One congressional staffer enthused: "It's damn near unpatriotic to oppose the president right now."
But the effect was temporary. Carter's energy reform bill passed the House, but the Democratic Senate resisted on key issues, resulting in an impasse. Eventually, the energy crisis faded in comparison to unsought emergencies such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages in Iran.
And so Barack Obama's address to Congress on health care, at a minimum, must answer the question: What is the crisis? When an individual can't get needed health care, it is certainly a crisis for them. This, Obama might argue, creates moral responsibilities for the rest of us to help. But this would argue for a more incremental approach, adding coverage for the working poor instead of remaking the American health system for everyone.