Whenever Barack Obama has faced political crisis, he’s rescued himself with a big, sweeping, earth-shifter of a speech.
But 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.
“This speech is different, it’s coming much later in the game at a more difficult time than if he’d made it earlier,” warns Princeton University politics professor Julian Zelizer.
“But the downside of making a big speech — saying this is the fight of the year - is if that you just amplify the expectations you’re going to get it done,” Zelizer added.
“And you create a real problem for yourself if you don't achieve it. So, it’s a speech that’s not about some policy thing – it’s about defining his administration."
There are other potential pitfalls: an intra-party revolt by liberals if he ditches the public insurance option; creating unrealistic expectations at a time when many in his party would opt for quiet deal-making; and the ever-present hazard of presidential overexposure – which would permanently dilute Obama’s ability to influence national debates.
House and Senate aides cast Obama’s decision, announced by the White House late Wednesday, as a no-brainer born out of necessity.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) encouraged Obama to make the speech when the plan was first floated by White House aides a week ago, staffers say.
After a devastating August that saw a host of humiliating town hall demonstrations and an alarming drop-off in Obama’s personal popularity, “He had no choice, he had to do something," a senior house leadership aide told POLITICO.
“It’s fish-or-cut-bait time.”
History doesn’t seem to be on the president’s side. Bill Clinton gave a speech to save his health care plan on Sept. 22, 1993 – and his proposal was dead a yearlater.
Obama, perhaps the most gifted explainer of anyone to occupy the Oval office since Reagan or Roosevelt, has been frustrated by his inability to punch through the GOP’s anti-reform clamor.
But he has a long history of regaining his stride in one bold rhetorical vault – from the huge campaign rallies that helped him defeat frontrunner Hillary Clinton, to his famous Philadelphia speech on race, to his rousing joint-session address in the dark economic days following the inauguration.
So far, Obama has flown over the Hill’s tortured health care talks at 10,000 feet, offering broad guidance instead of the pre-written bill that helped sour Congress on the Clinton administration’s health care effort in 1993.
Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod is promising a far more detail-oriented approach next week – although he’s not saying what those specifics will actually be, especially when it comes to the hot-button “public” option proposal dividing liberal and conservative Democrats.
"I don't think anyone will leave the speech without a strong sense of how he believes we should proceed," Axelrod told CNN Wednesday night.
Asked about the public option, Axelrod added: “The president embraced the public option because he thinks we need to have competition and choice. .... He believes that would be a boon for consumers to get the best deal. He still believes in competition and choice."
When asked if the public option was off the table, Axelrod juked, saying, "I am not going to deal with the details of the president's speech — otherwise, there would be no point in giving it.”
The problem is that Obama risks alienating either the right or left wing of his party by staking out a clear position on the public plan.
And whomever he irks will walk up to the microphones in the Capitol Rotunda and blast away, drowning out the message of party comity he’ll try to project with the speech. He’s also likely to take heat if he tries to dodge.
Pelosi, for one, is still committed to the public option and believes no bill can pass her chamber without it, according to several Democratic sources.
"They have been messaging the public option as if Sybil has been in charge," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) expressing widespread liberal disgust at the White House’s mixed messages on the plan.
But comments from senior White House aides to POLITICO that the president does not plan to insist on a public option once again served as a reminder that the White House could be in for a rough September.
Last month, remarks from Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius that the public option is not essential to reform foreshadowed an impending Democratic civil war if White House calculations that progressives will accept a compromise prove misguided.
“If the president says, ‘Here is what I need in the bill,’ and it doesn’t include the public option, there will be no other way to interpret it than it was a retreat,” added Weiner (D-N.Y.) said.
“I speak for a lot of members who are allies of the president. We are prepared to take our lumps to get this important policy done. But I don’t like this sense of us charging up the hill, and not only is the president not leading us, but he is not on the hill with us.”
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said it would be a mistake for Obama not to signal his support for a public option on Wednesday. Sixty Democrats, enough to sink a bill, have pledged to oppose legislation that lacks a strong public option.
“We won’t be with him on that, and then it doesn’t work. So he’s making a big mistake. I’m not saying that as threatening. I’m saying that as a reality,” she said.
If Obama doesn’t signal his support for a public option, progressives said they will redouble their efforts to convince House leadership to include it.
Public plan proponents have long held out hope that Obama would stand with them in the end. When asked in recent months how they thought the public option would survive – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – Democratic senators such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tom Harkin of Iowa would point to what they viewed as the president’s public and private expressions of support for it.
On Tuesday night, Brown told CBS News that he does not know if he could vote for a bill without it.
"The president needs to step forward, be more specific, more aggressively fight for a strong health reform bill with a strong public option," Brown said.
If Obama declines to endorse the public option as an absolute in a high-profile address meant to detail his preferences for a bill, congressional Democratic leaders will be forced into serious discussion about finding a Plan B – legislative alternatives beyond the public option that would contain costs in the health care system.
Those options, which have been floated mostly on the periphery of the public plan debate, include establishing consumer-owned health cooperatives, triggering a public option at some point in the future if certain benchmarks go unmet, or setting up a regulatory structure by which targets for cost cutting would need to be made or else actions would have to be taken.
Gerald Shea, a top lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said in an interview Wednesday that the public option is one of three “absolute musts” in the bill because lowering health care costs is a “do-or-die” issue for union members. The AFL-CIO’s incoming president, Richard Trumka, told reporters this week that lawmakers could not count on the union’s support if they abandon the public option.
The AFL-CIO would consider other proposals – although none, including consumer cooperatives, has been presented as a credible alternative to the public option, Shea said.
Asked whether Trumka would walk from any bill that didn’t include the public option, Shea said: “He is the ultimate negotiator, in my experience, and he knows how to get a deal. We are not going to cut off our nose to spite our face.”
-- Chris Frates contributed to this story.