President Obama will tell Congress and the American people tonight his prescription for the nation's health care system in more detail than he ever has before.
What remains unclear is whether Obama will insist on a government-backed "public option" to compete with private insurance companies or a compromise that can attract moderate Democrats and Republicans.
The president told ABC's Good Morning America in an interview broadcast Wednesday that he wants to "make sure that Democrats and Republicans understand that I'm open to new ideas, that we're not being rigid and ideological about this thing, but we do intend to get something done this year."
Despite the president's optimistic view, Congressional Democrats and Republicans a few hours before the president's speech on Wednesday appeared to remain on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the possibility of hashing out a bipartisan agreement anytime soon.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., abandoned his earlier talk expressing the need for the broad outlines of an agreement after meeting on Tuesday with the half-Republican, half-Democrat "Gang of Six." On Wednesday, Baucus said he hoped an agreement could be carved out by the end of the year, but added he plans to move forward in trying to work through a plan regardless.
"I very much hope and do expect Republicans will be on board," Baucus said Wednesday. "I don't know how many, but if there are not any, I will move forward anyway."
Congressional Republicans, meantime, were sending out a message that everyone needs to slow down on start over on a health-care overhaul plan. Some GOP members are calling for a slimmed-down version of the president's plan with a few stipulations staying in place, including one insuring that insurance companies cannot deny coverage to people with pre-existing health issues.
"Our view is: Let's scale it back, target the problems and not have the government take over, in effect, all of American health care," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.
Democratic leaders who met with the president Tuesday came away extolling a public option as the best way to inject more choice and competition into the insurance market. "We're going to do our very best to have a public option or something like a public option before we finish this work," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama will be more specific than he has been in the past about what he favors and how he wants to pay for it.
"What the president will do is ... take the strands that exist, the ideas that are out there, and try to pull many of those together, outline in some specificity a plan moving forward," he said.
Tom Daschle, former Senate majority leader and Obama's initial pick for health secretary, said Wednesday there will be "no surprises" in the address, but added the president would likely offer more details about his plan.
"He'll be as specific as a president can be in 45 minutes," Daschle said.
The speech presents Obama with a series of conflicting expectations, experts say:
• He must get deeper into the nitty-gritty of five health care bills in Congress without being so specific that he confuses the millions watching on TV.
"This cannot be simply the speech he's given before," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "There now has to be an outline of an Obama bill."
On the other hand, says Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, "it's got to be simple, it's got to be believable and compelling, and it's got to be powerful."
• He has to come across as tough and willing to stand up for his principles while appearing magnanimous toward his political opponents and willing to compromise.
Speaking before a joint session of Congress "is a dramatic and open invitation to be pluralistic and open-minded and extend an olive branch to the other side," says Roderick Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas.
• He must try to satisfy his liberal base, which favors a public option and generous subsidies to the uninsured, without alienating moderates who want private health care cooperatives or a public option only as a last resort.
"I think he will make clear that his bottom line is to get it done, one way or another," says Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal health advocacy group Families USA. "If it can't get done on a bipartisan basis, he is determined to get it through the Congress this year."