By RICK KLEIN If all the cards are on the table, there’s an awful lot of bluffing going on. And if the stakes get any higher, is someone bound to walk away? The bluffing may be from a White House that won’t really drop the public option, not entirely. It may be the liberals who won’t really block a reform bill, even if they don’t like it. It may be coming from the moderates whose Septembers won’t be as noisy as their Augusts. A speech, particularly one with the kind of expectations likely to surround the week-long build-up to Wednesday’s address to a joint session of Congress, isn’t going to grease the legislative skids by itself. But in its symbolism and its (expected) substance, it suggests that President Obama is taking a cue or two from former President Bill Clinton — after spending much of the year trying to do precisely what Clinton didn’t. President Clinton’s address to the joint session of Congress marked something of a high point in that debate — though the debate was just starting 16 years ago this month. After that night, Americans pretty much knew what the president wanted done (whether they agreed with it or not).
We’re not yet at that point of specificity from Team Obama — by design and by circumstance. And there aren’t many strategy shifts available after this. Is this a healthy acknowledgement? “We’re at a point in this debate where we’ve been talking for months and months, all the ideas are on the table,” senior adviser David Axelrod told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “Now it’s time to close the deal,” Axelrod told Tapper, on “Good Morning America” Thursday. Tapper: “This is clearly not Plan A.” How about some expectations management: “Aides said Obama will use the speech to add more specifics to his vision for overhauling the nation's health system,” Anne E. Kornblut, Ceci Connolly, and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. “He will be attempting a difficult balancing act, seeking to win moderate Senate Democrats to his cause without embracing compromises that would alienate liberal House Democrats. He is not expected to associate himself with any one bill.” No plastic card this time? “For better or worse, the high-profile speech is likely to tie Obama closer to the issue in the minds of Americans. Almost exactly 16 years ago, then-President Bill Clinton also attempted to break a logjam on health care in Congress with a prime-time address to lawmakers, and his administration's efforts ended in spectacular failure.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on “GMA” “That speech was at the very beginning. . . . This is more at the beginning of the end.” Obama will “basically lay out the bill that he wants” — including a universal mandate and insurance reforms, and maybe a public-option trigger mechanism, as discussed by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, per Stephanopoulos. Props may work… Time’s Karen Tumulty: “Bill Clinton launched his health reform effort with a joint session address in September, 1993, one in which he waved a bright blue plastic card labeled ‘Health Care Security Card.’ It was a prop, yes, but an effective symbol of his commitment to providing every American health coverage that could never be taken away. . . . What's more important than a speech right now is a strategy.” The part of the last effort Obama wouldn’t mind seeing again: “Clinton also took healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress, and polls showed a surge in public support. But he made his pitch before his administration had worked out the specifics. And by the time the plan was unveiled, opponents had turned public opinion and the effort failed,” the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Nicholas and Janet Hook report. The move is “an acknowledgment that the president’s prior tactic of laying out broad principles and leaving Congress to fill in the details was no longer working and that Mr. Obama needed to become more personally involved in shaping the outcome,” Robert Pear and Jackie Calmes write in The New York Times. Will it be prescriptive enough? “But the officials said Mr. Obama was unlikely to unveil a detailed legislative plan of his own. And they insisted that Mr. Obama had not given up on the provision that has attracted the most fire from the right, a proposal for a government-run competitor to private insurers, although many Democrats say the proposal may eventually be jettisoned,” they write. Bad memories: “Some Obama advisers, wary of parallels between [Clinton's] effort and Mr. Obama’s push for an overhaul of the health system, had argued that the president should give a televised speech from the Oval Office instead of the House chamber.”
Why it’s maybe not the ideal setting: The image will be an “audience that is very quick to cheer and quick to jeer,” Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at George Washington University, tells Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman and James Rowley. “The commentary will be how divided the Congress is, not united, by doing it this way.” The perfect stakes, per Karl Rove: “Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) was inartful but basically correct when he said if Mr. Obama loses on health care, ‘it will be his Waterloo.’ It would destroy confidence in the ability of Democrats to govern,” Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. “He has used up almost all his goodwill in less than nine months, with the hardest work still ahead. At the year's start, Democrats were cocky. At summer's end, concern is giving way to despair. A perfect political storm is amassing, and heading straight for Democrats.” Tom Daschle quotes Ted Kennedy Jr. — to basically agree with Rove: “As we stand, once again, at the bottom of the hill, the challenge is daunting,” he writes in the Journal. “If we lack the ability to successfully address the urgent problems of health care in our country, the American people and the rest of the world will rightly question our ability to tackle other challenges, domestic and global. And needless to say, given the dominance of my party in the White House and in Congress, Democrats will be to blame.” Listen up, Mary Landrieu and Ben and Bill Nelson: “The choice between complete legislative failure and majority rule should not pose a dilemma for any Democratic senator,” Daschle writes. Try this on: “If Snowe drops off the bill, using the budget reconciliation process will probably be a necessity,” Ezra Klein writes at his Washington Post blog. “”Passage becomes much less certain, which means a scaled-back bill becomes much more likely. This is the irony of the health-care endgame: The bill becomes much more conservative if it loses its final Republican.” As big as they come: “If soaring oratory has often been Obama’s saving grace, the health care reform address he’s scheduled to deliver to a joint session of Congress next week is his riskiest effort to date – a high-reward gamble with significant potential downsides,” Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Glenn Thrush write. The move “raises the stakes after a month of contentious town-hall meetings and falling public support,” Richard Wolf and John Fritze write for USA Today. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., is ready for some frank talk: Obama should tell the nation, “We cannot achieve what many people had hoped at the outset, and we should be ready to strike a deal,” she tells The Washington Post. The detail that will get the most attention: Obama “consistently has refused to insist on a government-run program to compete with private health insurers, a top goal of liberals, even though he says he prefers such an option. Axelrod called the public option important, but stopped short of saying it was essential to a final bill,” per the AP’s Chuck Babington. (And this, according to CMAG: “In one measure of the intense opposition Obama and his allies faced this summer, opponents of the Democratic effort outspent supporters on television commercials in August for the first time this year.”) The warnings, on the public option: “Why would the White House step away from something that is going to weaken their side and that isn’t going to pick up a single vote on the other side?” Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, told ABC’s Teddy Davis. “If you’re interested in health insurance reform, the public option can’t go away — it’s essential,” Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and president-designate, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Warnings from the other end… From the AP write-up of Sen. Blanch Lincoln’s, D-Ark., town hall Wednesday night: “U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln says she won't suppport a government-funded insurance option as part of an overhaul of the nation's health care system. Dozens of people repeatedly shouted at Lincoln as she spoke before a crowd of more than 800 people packed into an arena at Arkansas Tech University on Wednesday. At one point, an audience member repeatedly shouted and referred to advisers to President Barack Obama as ‘Communists.’ “ The what-went-wrongs begin: “A look back suggests the president and his allies may have ‘overlearned’ the lessons of President Bill Clinton's 1993-1994 health-care defeat,” Jonathan Weisman, Neil King, and Janet Adamy write in The Wall Street Journal. “They expended great effort to line up the support of health-care insurers, pharmaceutical makers and care providers, believing that by keeping them around the table, they could win over Republicans and stop the kind of industry-led attacks that helped sink the Clinton plan. But this strategy left out the wooing of public opinion, which was being affected by broader events, including the economic crisis and anger over bank bailouts.” Also looking back, Time’s Joe Klein: “It has been widely observed that Obama overlearned the lesson of the Clinton health-care effort by deferring to Congress to write the legislation. It has been less widely observed that the President overlearned the lesson of Bush's hyperpoliticized Justice Department by leaving to Attorney General Eric Holder the decision about whether to investigate the CIA for torture abuses.” New Thursday: A Web video from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, starring House Minority Leader John Boehner, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Dick Morris, and Glenn Beck. (And Hitler, Marx, Castro, and Grandma.) The New York Times gets an early copy of Ted Kennedy’s autobiography: “In a memoir being published this month, Senator Edward M. Kennedy called his behavior after the 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne ‘inexcusable’ and said the events might have shortened the life of his ailing father, Joseph P. Kennedy,” Carl Hulse and John M. Broder report. “Mr. Kennedy also said he had always accepted the finding of a presidential commission that a sole gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Robert F. Kennedy grieved so deeply over the killing of the president that family members feared for his emotional health, Mr. Kennedy wrote, saying that it ‘veered close to being a tragedy within a tragedy.’ ” And: “Mr. Kennedy wrote of a secret meeting in the spring of 1967 between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Kennedy, whose increasingly outspoken criticism of the war in Southeast Asia was becoming a political threat to Johnson. According to the book, Robert Kennedy proposed that Johnson give him authority to personally negotiate a peace treaty in Vietnam. This implicitly would have kept Robert from running for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, a prospect that worried Johnson.” (Plus: “Mr. Kennedy also complained that [Carter] White House meetings had been barely tolerable, in part because no liquor was ever served during Mr. Carter’s term. “He wanted no luxuries nor any sign of worldly living,” Mr. Kennedy wrote.) Vice President Joe Biden gives a stimulus update at 10 am ET, at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Per his office: “Vice President Biden will highlight how the Recovery Act is contributing to the overall state of the economy and improving economic conditions across the country.” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma has a preview: “Vice President Joe Biden will claim Thursday that the $787 billion stimulus plan ‘is doing more, faster, more efficiently, and more effectively than we had hoped.’ In a speech planned to mark the 200-day mark since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act took effect, Biden will say that $62.5 billion in tax cuts have been delivered, $1.9 billion contracts have been awarded to small businesses, and more than 10,000 transportation projects approved.” Just in time: “After winning $2.3 million in federal stimulus money for a sewer project, officials in Auburn, Maine, wrangled another prize from Washington: permission to forgo American-made manhole covers for a design made only at a Canadian foundry,” Alan Wirzbicki reports in The Boston Globe. “As local governments race to spend stimulus money, many are seeking exemptions from the law’s ‘Buy American’ restrictions, which were intended to prevent taxpayer money from ending up in foreign pockets. . . . The Obama administration could not provide a list or amount of waivers granted — which potentially could total billions of dollars — and Vice President Joe Biden’s office, which has responsibility for overseeing the stimulus, did not respond to requests for comment.” (Here’s guessing they’ll be asked again to respond.) Also fueling outrage this Thursday: “In an acknowledgment that the Department of Education provided lesson plans written somewhat inartfully, surrounding the President Obama’s speech to students next Tuesday, the White House today announced that it had rewritten one of the sections in question,” ABC’s Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report. “As one of the preparatory materials for teachers provided by the Department of Education, students had been asked to, ‘Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.’ Today, after Republicans accused the White House of trying to indoctrinate school children with liberal propaganda the White House and the Department of Education changed the section to now read, ‘Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals.’ ” The Washington Times’ Matthew Mosk: “Presidential aides acknowledged the White House helped the U.S. Education Department craft the proposal, which immediately was met by fierce criticism from Republicans and conservative organizations who accused Mr. Obama of trying to politicize the education system.” Is the bloody sock getting tossed in the political ring? (Probably not, but it’s a great story in the meantime — and may be Republicans’ best shot at a Senate seat in Massachusetts.) “I have a lot on my plate so as of today, probably not,” Curt Schilling told New England Cable News, per ABC’s David Chalian. Later, on his blog: “While my family is obviously the priority, and 38 Studios is a priority, I do have some interest in the possibility. That being said to get to there, from where I am today, many many things would have to align themselves for that to truly happen.” State GOP spokeswoman Tarah Donoghue, to The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser: “We’re thrilled so many Republicans are considering a run for US Senate. We have a real opportunity here.” (Bush White House spokesman Scott Stanzel remembers Schilling’s first foray into politics.) Coming Labor Day, from American Rights at Work: Two new ads making the case for the Employee Free Choice Act. And the summer wedding that never was (or, at least, hasn’t been yet): “Here’s a newsflash: Chelsea Clinton did not get married last month in a swank, celebrity-laden wedding on Martha’s Vineyard attended by the president of the United States,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker writes. “The persistence of the rumor despite the lack of tangible evidence says something about today’s free-for-all Internet media culture, where facts sometimes don’t get in the way of a good story. It also says something about the Clintons and the mistrust they have engendered over the years that so many people do not take them at their word, even over a question like this.”
The Kicker: “I am making sure I get inoculated from all illnesses by going to town meetings.” — Sen. Russ Feingold, on “The Takeaway” radio program, on how he’s preparing personally for H1N1 flu. “Actually, my first press conference could probably be my last as someone on the political scene, which probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.” –Curt Schilling, prospective Senate candidate, on his lack of a “filter” in public statements. For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day: