After Obama's Speech, It's Back to Wooing the Skeptics

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Olivier Douliery / Getty

President Obama meets with members of his Cabinet as, from left, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Defense Secretary Robert Gates look on

No one in the nation's capital is naive enough to think that President Barack Obama's address before Congress Wednesday evening, Sept. 9, was somehow, in one fell swoop, going to overcome all the opposition to health-care reform, the power of his rhetoric winning over skeptics like a latter-day Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But after the President's impassioned, 47-minute speech drew thunderous applause and improved poll ratings, even some of the most jaded Democrats may have allowed themselves to think that maybe Obama's oratory really was a "game changer," as Senate majority leader Harry Reid put it.

But it didn't take long the next day for the reality to set in that not much about the game had really changed. "Every day," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who is leading bipartisan talks, said with a sigh, "we get a little closer. And I mean it."

Problem is, he has meant it before — virtually every day for the past four months, he has reported he's "making progress." Baucus has pledged to send a bill to the Senate floor the week after next and has promised legislation for his colleagues to look at "within a day or two" of Sept. 15, the deadline set by Reid. But if anything, the President's speech gave the negotiators more, not less, to think about. The controversy over Republican Representative Joe Wilson's shouting "You lie!" at the President over his claim that illegal immigrants wouldn't benefit from health-care reform apparently sparked some reconsideration of the relevant language. "We really thought we'd resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President's speech last night, we wanted to go back and drill down again," said Senator Kent Conrad, one of the Democrats in the talks after a meeting Thursday morning. Later that afternoon, Baucus said the group would add a proof-of-citizenship requirement for participation in the new health exchange — a move likely to inflame the left.

In terms of the all-important spin wars, Obama successfully hit the reset button: he's regained the debate and turned the conversation back into something productive. But his plainspoken case for reform failed to convince many, if any, of those wavering votes in the chamber. "I don't think the audience was in the chamber. I think the audience was in the viewing public out there, to help them understand and reset the message that health-care reform benefits everybody one way or another," said moderate Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, standing by the Capitol in front of a bus about to take him and 16 other Democrats to the White House for a chat with the President on health care. "I'm not going to commit to anything until I see everything, because there are so many moving parts to this process, and a lot of them are very wonkish but they're extremely important."

Nelson and the other moderate Democratic Senators had an hour-long meeting in the White House Cabinet room. The group came to agreement on issues like making the bill deficit neutral and reducing debt in the long term while at the same time treading gingerly over the remaining issues to be negotiated, including the possible inclusion of a so-called public-insurance option. According to Obama aides, the President urged the Senators to continue reaching out to him over the coming weeks with suggestions and feedback. When the meeting concluded, the Senators returned by bus to the Capitol, leaving the White House through a side door to avoid the reporters waiting outside.

To some degree, the meeting demonstrated the delicate balance Obama is trying to strike after speaking to the nation. On the one hand, the President is determined to create momentum for an eventual compromise in the Senate. On the other hand, he does not want to set expectations too high. Even before the speech was delivered, some Obama aides were cautioning that there was still much work ahead. "We certainly want to see Congress move," said a senior adviser before adding, "I don't think all of it is going to get done tomorrow."

In fact, it's smaller meetings like the one Obama had with Nelson and his comrades that are most crucial for getting a bill passed. Obama admitted in a prespeech interview with ABC that he made the mistake of keeping a distance from Congress because he didn't want to "step on any toes." Shoring up moderate Dems is a beginning; he must also work to garner support across the aisle, where Maine's Olympia Snowe is currently considered the most likely convert. During the summer of discontent, the White House stopped reaching out to some key potential votes: the other Senator from Maine, Susan Collins, says she hasn't heard from anyone at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue since July, and retiring Ohio Senator George Voinovich, another Republican often mentioned by Dems as a potential swing vote, has also heard nothing from Obama or his staff. Both were put off by the President's speech, which Collins called "divisive." "I would've hoped the President would've done a more conciliatory speech," she sniffed, emerging from a vote off the Senate floor Thursday afternoon.

Even the Republicans Obama hailed by name were not moved. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who famously worked across the aisle with Ted Kennedy to create the State Children's Health Insurance Program, remained a solid no. "I like the President a lot, and I'd like to help, but it's pretty hard to under these circumstances," Hatch said, citing a litany of problems he has with the bill. No one from the White House has approached Hatch in months, nor have the bipartisan negotiators, even though he used to be one of those negotiators before he dropped out in disgust. Hatch declared the process "heartrending" because of what he called a lack of outreach.

But outreach is in the eye of the beholder, and Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer challenged the other team to step up: "The ball is now clearly in the court of the Republican Party. Are they going to continue to just say no? Or will they meet us part of the way? That's the question."

With reporting by Michael Scherer / Washington