10/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Speech and the Fig Leaf

Big Media frequently (usually?) gets it wrong, but their hyping out about the big gamble Obama is making with this health care speech to Congress is actually correct. He is raising the stakes for himself very high, not just through the roof but to the moon and stars. If he fails now to get health care passed, it will be the biggest presidential level political fiasco since Carter's botched rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran.

You have to give the president credit for his courage. The willingness to take big gambles and then make them work is a hallmark of greatness.

The confusing thing about what we are hearing about the speech, though, is whether he will be climbing those steps in front of a joint session of Congress and the entire nation, taking the big gamble and giving this profoundly important speech, to call retreat. A speech at the Capitol to a joint session of Congress is like a general bringing out the trumpeters who will, as the great Civil War battle hymn says, never call retreat. It's that call to arms to charge forward, to go boldly and confidently into a new future. Outside of the annual State of the Union speech, these kinds of speeches are reserved for the biggest occasions -- when we're going to war, at moments of great national import. But leaks coming out of the White House say that Obama is going to use the speech to announce a "sort of scaled back bill that would focus on insurance reforms that both sides could agree to, but would not have a full public option, instead would have a so-called trigger." Another article discusses an internal debate where, "both camps accept that the administration proposal will be less generous than what has emerged from either the [Senate] HELP or House committees."

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but color me skeptical about what is really going on inside the White House right now. In spite of all the macho quotes from anonymous sources (there's something odd about being macho and anonymous at the same time, isn't there?) about the "left of the left" being the problem, and about how great the White House would look if we stood up to the left, the president is way too smart to make a major speech in front of a joint session of Congress in order to call retreat, to pass a bill that, "pretty much everyone can agree to," a bill which most commentators would describe as a big defeat. And he is too smart to give a speech whose main result would be a massive civil war inside the Democratic Party, with House progressives, labor,, Howard Dean, bloggers and online activists screaming bloody murder and denouncing him as a sell-out. I think the president understands that such a civil war would kill health care reform for good, and hurt him politically a great deal.

In spite of all the speculation about this speech offering more specifics, what I am guessing will happen is that Obama will stay with the basic strategy he committed to on this issue in transition: keeping his options open. I think his goal in the speech will be to reframe the issue, make that call to arms to get it done, but instead of burning the bridge between progressive and conservative Democrats, he will try to reinforce the bridge and keep negotiations going by trying to bring his party together.

I have always believed, and continue to, that at the end of the day the House will pass a fairly strong bill with a good public option, and the Senate will pass a mushed-up compromise with less coverage and a trigger or co-op or some other unworkable thing. After that, the final question will be determined by who blinks in conference committee and takes a fig leaf compromise, and who stays resolute until the end. One side will walk away with some phony rhetorical nod that will allow them to go to the media and say they forced a compromise, and one side will win the policy fight. I still believe it could be the good guys.

I'm guessing Obama understands the dynamic, and that he will not intentionally blow up the entire process by doing a major, high-stakes speech in front of Congress where he announces that he's decided to give up and go out with a whimper. I think he will give a strong speech about the need to go forward on health care, while continuing to keep his options and the negotiations process moving ahead. I believe this not because I have blind faith and trust in the president, but because I think it's the only path open to him that actually makes political sense right now.

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