Obama's School Speech and Health Care Push Highlights Challenges of Presidency

It could be make or break time for Obama as he tries to refocus the debate.

Sept. 8, 2009— -- Summer is officially over for members of Congress and President Obama, who returned to the spotlight today to deliver a much-debated speech to school students, followed by a highly anticipated speech on health care Wednesday.

This could be a make or break week for the president, some say, as he kicks off what could be a very challenging fall.

Today, Obama delivered his back-to-school address to nearly 56 million children nationwide, a speech that became surprisingly controversial in certain school districts and highly politicized in Washington, well before its delivery.

Some Republicans claimed that the president's speech was designed as liberal propaganda to indoctrinate students. A lesson plan drawn up by the Department of Education drew heat for its language, which suggested that students, after watching the president's speech, write a letter about how they could "help the president."

The White House released the full remarks of Obama's speech Monday to assuage concerns, and the pre-released text indicated none of the leftist indoctrination some alleged. The president, in his speech, will mainly urge students to work hard, stay in school and take responsibility.

Former first lady Laura Bush expressed her support for the speech, saying that it's "really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States."

"I think there is a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children, and I think there are a lot of people that should do the same," Bush said in an interview with CNN's Zain Verjee. "And that is encourage their own children to stay in school and to study hard and to try to achieve the dream that they have."

Obama's speech is part of a full-day effort to promote education. The president will also be part of a 30-minute documentary -- that also features singer Kelly Clarkson and sports star LeBron James -- called "Get Schooled: You Have The Right," that airs tonight.

Today's speech is of relatively little consequence compared with Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress about health care reform, an address that could redefine the debate, which could in turn redefine his presidency.

"The stakes are huge. I think his presidency will be judged on whether he can succeed where many other presidents have failed," said John Podesta, president and chief executive of liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

Other say this is the president's opportunity to rally the American people.

"This is make or break time for President Obama on health care because the public has turned so sour and he has a divided Congress," said political analyst David Gergen. "He needs to first rally the Congress but more importantly he needs to turn the tide of public opinion."

High Stakes Speech on Health Care

The president resurrected some of his fiery campaign rhetoric at the AFL-CIO picnic Monday, where he previewed his big speech.

"Now, I'll have a lot more to say about this Wednesday night, and I don't want to give it all away. ... But let me just say this. We've been fighting for quality, affordable health care for every American for nearly a century-since Teddy Roosevelt. The Congress and the country have been engaged in a vigorous debate for many months," Obama said. "And debate is good, because we have to get this right. But in every debate, at some point comes to an end. There comes a time to decide, a time to act. ...It's time to act and get this thing done."

The president also addressed one of the thorniest issues in the debate -- the option of a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurance companies.

"I continue to believe that a public option within the basket of insurance choices would help improve quality and bring down costs," the president said, speaking to the labor union group in Cincinnati.

White House aides say the president will get more specific tomorrow, and tackle criticisms directly. He demonstrated some of that yesterday as he took on critics of health care reform.

"Because we're so close to real reform, the special interests are doing what they always do -- trying to scare the American people and preserve the status quo," the president said. "But I've got a question for them: What's your answer? What's your solution? The truth is, they don't have one. It's do nothing."

The White House wants to refocus its efforts and the public discussion on rescuing the health care debate, but that has been sidelined by other distractions -- the uproar over the school speech and more notably, the resignation of Obama's "green jobs" czar Van Jones.

Obama's special adviser at the Council on Environmental Quality was hailed for his work by politicians such as Al Gore, but his past comments and actions -- most notably his name on the "911 Truth Statement," which alleged that high-level government officials were involved in the Sept. 11 tragedy, and comments perceived as racist by some -- led to his resignation.

The president also has a basket full of other issues to tackle -- Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the economy, to name a few. Health care is taking center stage at the moment, but White House officials are gearing up for long nights ahead in what could be a busy and challenging fall.

ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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