- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trying to resuscitate his push for a health care overhaul, President Obama has decided to address a rare joint session of Congress next week and make a revamped argument for passage of an evolving plan that has riled the nation and brought down his approval ratings for the past two months.

The White House on Wednesday said Mr. Obama would head to Capitol Hill on Sept. 9 to speak to lawmakers in prime time upon their return from a monthlong vacation that was highlighted by heated town-hall meetings on health care. Top advisers to the president promised that Mr. Obama would give more detailed direction to Congress, after months of only general guidance.

Though David Axelrod, top adviser to the president, said Mr. Obama still “embraces” a government-run “public option” for health insurance, which combined with the plan’s price tag has fueled much of the public blowback, the president was not expected to insist that it be part of any final plan. The White House has declined for weeks to be pinned down on the controversial government-run component embraced by the Democratic Party’s liberal base, saying only that Mr. Obama’s priority is a reform that increases competition in the health insurance industry and choice for consumers.

Next week’s direct address — a rarity that has occurred outside of State of the Union speeches only once in each of the past two presidencies — raises the stakes in a fight that has bloodied the young administration more than many had expected. But it also signals the seriousness and urgency with which the president and his advisers view the issue.

Mr. Axelrod said the speech would be “the kickoff to the final push to get this done” and promised that Mr. Obama would “address the issue with force and clarity.”

“The path that he believes we should go will be clear to everyone who hears this speech. I don’t think anybody will leave Wednesday night without a clear sense of what he proposes and what health care reform is not,” said Mr. Axelrod, speaking to a small group of reporters at the White House.

Three of the past four presidents have delivered one speech each to joint sessions of Congress. President George W. Bush did it Sept. 20, 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. President Reagan did it Nov. 21, 1985, after returning from a summit in Geneva with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the topic of nuclear arms reduction.

But Mr. Obama’s speech bears a resemblance to President Clinton’s address on Sept. 22, 1993. The topic of that speech, given in Mr. Clinton’s first year, was also health care reform.

The prospect of failure has haunted the Obama reform effort from the beginning, and much of the administration’s strategy has been an attempt to learn the lessons of collapse under Mr. Clinton and to avoid the mistakes that led to it. But some are beginning to fear that history is repeating itself.

The White House has had a difficult two months in which public support for the president’s health care reforms and his overall job approval fell.

Town-hall meetings filled with angry constituents dominated the news for weeks in August. Those opposed to the president’s plan harangued and sometimes shouted down members of Congress and at least one Cabinet member.

Mr. Axelrod acknowledged that the White House has “taken some dings.”

“There’s no doubt this has been a vituperative debate,” he said, but added that “this conventional thinking that somehow the bottom fell out in August, no I don’t accept that.”

Julius Hobson, a senior policy adviser at international law firm Bryan Cave LLP, said Mr. Obama’s speech “raises the stakes substantially” for the president.

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, said it was a good idea for Mr. Obama to speak to a joint session.

“It ensures network coverage and is likely to increase the audience at a time at which he needs to reframe the terms of the debate,” Mr. Mann said.

But if the president does not insist on a public option as an essential component, he may anger much of his liberal base.

Jane Hamsher, a liberal blogger who founded FireDogLake.com, said it was no surprise that Mr. Obama’s planned speech wasn’t likely to include a demand for a public insurance option.

But she said it’s a “huge tactical mistake” since a SurveyUSA poll in August showed support for the public option at 77 percent. She helped members of Congress who promised they would vote against a bill without a public option raise more than $400,000 last month.

Ms. Hamsher said that without a public option, the reform effort amounts to just throwing money at the insurance industry.

Republicans greeted the news with calls for a “reset” of the reform debate.

“House Republicans want to hear what the president has to say, but after the public outcry this August, it’s clear the American people don’t want a new speech, they want a new plan,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “We hope the president will hit the reset button on health care next week and announce that Democratic leaders are scrapping their current proposals and are ready to start over — this time on a real, responsible, bipartisan plan for reform.”

Yet in the latest indication that the Obama administration may give up its pursuit of a bipartisan bill, a White House official said the “new phase” was partly the result of Republicans “walking away from the table” in recent days and weeks on a compromise reform bill.

Rumors have swirled that Democrats now will try to push through a bill without Republican support, using a procedural tool in Congress called reconciliation. The White House has not closed the door on that option.

Mr. Axelrod said the speech next week is “not a time for procedural discussions.”

“Let’s make the speech and see what happens,” he said.

But top White House officials said the contentious debate over health care reform is entering a “new phase” and promised an increase in assertiveness from the president. The administration said the political landscape has changed because of recent Republican actions.

“We are entering a new phase driven in part by the actions of some in the GOP, including [Sen. Charles E. Grassley, of Iowa and Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming], which indicates that they are essentially walking away from the table,” the official said.

Mr. Grassley and Mr. Enzi are two of the three Republicans in the “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group on the Senate Finance Committee that has been trying to hash out a reform plan that would attract support from members of their party.

But Mr. Grassley has made several critical comments about Mr. Obama’s reform plans recently. He said in a fundraising letter that he always has “been opposed to the Obama administration’s plans to nationalize health care.”

Mr. Enzi said in the Republican Party’s radio and video address last weekend that Democratic reform proposals under consideration in the House of Representatives “will actually make our nation’s finances sicker without saving you money.”

Craig Orfield, a spokesman for Mr. Enzi, said the senator “remains committed to working toward a bipartisan solution to provide real health care reform.”

A spokesman for Mr. Grassley did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

• Jon Ward can be reached at jward@washingtontimes.com.

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