This is what Barack Obama does. Back him into a corner, get the press in a frenzy, send his poll ratings plummeting, and the aging basketball player responds again and again with the same move: he delivers a major speech. And why not? It keeps working. It's the thing that first introduced him to the nation, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It is what extricated him from the Jeremiah Wright mess during the campaign. It has become the central method of his foreign policy push, in Prague, Cairo, Moscow and Accra.
It's also been the method of choice in his push for health-care reform. In just the past two months, he has held six health-care town halls and a prime-time news conference. But public support for his plans has been declining throughout the summer. So the answer, he believes, is one more speech, Wednesday night in front of a joint session of Congress.
Upon returning from a late August vacation on Martha's Vineyard, several of Obama's senior aides advised that he delay a new push for health-care reform until the third week in September, after the anniversaries of Sept. 11 and the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. But according to a senior aide, Obama overruled them. "The President has a big megaphone, and he intends to use that megaphone," senior adviser David Axelrod told ABC News of the decision to go ahead on Sept. 9, 16 years to the month after Bill Clinton tried to do the same thing. (White House officials downplay any Clinton comparison and point out that they are far closer now to the goal line than Clinton was or, for that matter, than any Democratic President has ever been. The bill has already passed three committees in the House and one in the Senate.)
So Obama will take his case for health-care reform directly to the American people again and compete head to head with the 8 p.m. season premiere of America's Next Top Model. The speech is less a recalibration of his health-care effort than a restatement of purpose. Aides caution that he will neither demand a so-called public-health-insurance option nor abandon his desire to see one achieved. He will not give up his quest for a bipartisan compromise in the Senate, nor will he vow to abandon the possible use of parliamentary procedures that would allow Democrats to pass major portions of reform with just 51 Senate votes.
He will make clear, as he has before, that the time for action is now. On Sept. 7, at a fiery Labor Day rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, Obama offered a sneak peek. "Debate is good, because we have to get this right," he told the crowd. "But in every debate there comes a time to decide, a time to act. And Ohio, that time is now."
Meanwhile, in the Senate, where a compromise has not yet been reached, there are some signs that agreement time might be upon us. On Sept. 6, in an interview with CNN, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, a longtime opponent of a public-health-insurance option, said he could support a public plan as a "fail-safe" or "backstop" that would be created only if insurance companies did not reform their business practices over the coming years. Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, a key swing vote from Maine, has also spoken favorably about a triggered fail-safe.
Montana's Max Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, also began circulating a new compromise proposal on Sunday that would include a tax on high-cost, so-called Cadillac insurance plans to help subsidize low-income insurance coverage. Officials who have seen the Baucus plan are refreshingly optimistic, noting that the chairman has moved on some provisions that could make his proposal reconcilable with whatever passes the more liberal House. One key issue is how it deals with government aid to people who do not get health insurance through their employers; those not covered by an expanded Medicaid system would be required, for the first time, to purchase health coverage on their own. The subsidies in Baucus' current proposal are significantly more generous than those proposed under earlier versions of the bill that were circulating in July.
In other areas, however, Baucus appears to be holding out desperate hope for additional GOP support. For instance, the Baucus bill does not at this point, at least contain Snowe's proposal for a public plan as a backstop; instead, it would create member-run co-ops as an alternative to private health insurance. His bill also would not mandate that employers provide health coverage to their workers, but would require them to reimburse the Federal Government for the cost of the subsidies it provides their employees to purchase health coverage on their own. One source said that Baucus intends to lay down an ultimatum on Tuesday to the Republicans with whom he has been negotiating for months: Put down a counteroffer, or he will move on without them.
Despite the recent drop in poll support for reform, Democratic strategists still see several viable routes to getting a health-care bill through the Senate with the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster. These include, in declining order of preference for the White House: forging a bipartisan consensus to pass the 60-vote threshold; holding all 59 Democratic Senators and recruiting the GOP's Snowe; depending entirely on Democratic votes, including a replacement for Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The last alternative is to use parliamentary maneuvers to pass major parts of the legislation with just 51 votes.
"We all know the choices," says Andrew Stern, the president of the SEIU, a major service-employees union. "You may need to have them all in motion to get any of them to work."
This is why the House Democrats who have been calling on Obama to lay out a clear, fixed legislative plan on Wednesday night are likely to be disappointed. Obama's mission, when he takes the podium in the House, flanked by his Vice President and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be less about forcing the hand of Congress than re-energizing public support for reform, something that is essential for members of Congress to feel they have the cover to vote yes.
It's the kind of message Obama has delivered many times before as a state legislator from Chicago, as an embattled presidential candidate and as a victorious newly elected President. The question this time is: will sweeping oratory still carry the day, or has the public tired on the balm of powerful rhetoric in difficult times?