President Barack Obama plans to reach out to Republicans and reassure — rather than confront — his liberal supporters when he addresses an extraordinary joint session of Congress at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.
But he will warn lawmakers against seeking a perfect plan and then winding up doing nothing, as happened to the last Democratic president back in 1994.
The high-stake speech makes sense because Obama is such a gifted orator. But it is also risky because if poll numbers on health-care reform don’t improve after he speaks, it will be clear that the problem isn’t in the packaging, but in the proposal itself.
The contents of the speech were still being debated over the weekend. But here is what POLTIICO gleaned from conversations with top aides:
1) Obama will lay out a specific “President’s Plan,” even if he doesn’t call it that. He will make clear what’s on the table, and what he thinks warrants further debate, such as how to pay for the overhaul.
2) He will not confront or scold the left. “This is a case for bold action, not a stick in the eye to our supporters,” said an official involved in speech preparation. “That’s not how President Obama thinks. The politics of triangulation don’t live in this White House.”
3) He will make an overture to Republicans. “He will lay out his vision for health reform – taking the best ideas from both parties, make the case for why as a nation we must act now, and dispel the myths and confusion that are affecting public opinion,” the aide said.
4) He will make it clear that it’s better to get something done than nothing done. White House aides are reminding fellow Democrats that the party lost Congress in 1994 by failing to do any health reforms at all after Congress balked at the original plan by President Bill Clinton. “The lesson of 1994 is not that tackling health reform is politically perilous. It’s that failing to act could be devastating,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director.
5) Obama will try to reassure the left about his commitment to a public option, or government insurance plan. Aides said they are rethinking what he will say about this. He wants to thread the needle of voicing support for a public option, without promising to kill health reform to get it. But liberal congressional leaders were unyielding in their support for it on a conference call he held from Camp David yesterday, and he's going to meet with them at the White House early next week.
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The White House line has been: “We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition. There are lots of different ways to get there.” But now he’s going to step on the gas a little harder. One top official gave this formulation: “He has consistently said that he thinks the public option is an important way to make sure that there is both cost and competition control. He’s also said consistently that if someone can show him a better way or another way to get there, he’d be happy to look at it. But he’s never committed to going with another way. He’s always said he’d be happy to look at any proposal that gets to these goals, but that he thinks this is probably the best better way to do it.”
The speech was very much in flux over the weekend, because key decisions are being hashed out. Even the length is not yet set.
“He has not made any final decisions about the ultimate form of his package,” said a top official guiding speech preparation. “Anyone that tells you that he has is misinformed or extrapolating from conversations. He’s going to talk to a lot of people between now and next Wednesday. The president is in the process of deciding what his ultimate proposal will look like."
Also undecided: whether to follow up with nitty-gritty legislative language. “He has not made decisions about how he’s going to move this thing forward,” said a top West Wing aide.
Obama’s speechwriters were on the West Coast over the weekend for the wedding of Ben Rhodes, the deputy director of speechwriting. So the West Wing is coordinating the speech over a three-hour time difference.
On Tuesday or Wednesday, the leaders of the four liberal House caucuses will meet Obama at the White House. The meeting pledge came a day after progressives urged him in a letter to stand firmly behind the public insurance option.
Obama spoke by phone Friday with the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“Caucus leaders expressed absolute commitment to the idea of a robust public option, and said they expect it to be part of any health care reform legislation,” the groups said in a statement. “The president listened, asked many questions, and suggested that the dialogue should continue.”