Obama’s Health Care Speech a Beginning, Not an End

Whether you support President Barack Obama or not, his address tonight on health care reform to a joint session of Congress is a major event. American want reform, but are increasingly wary of the what they are hearing is likely to emerge from Washington. Of course, much of what they hear about what’s being considered is wrong or concern proposals that no one expects to reach the President’s desk, but the public’s unease is troubling for reformers nonetheless.

A well established political law holds that it is easier to attack than to propose and promote change. Reformers, consequently, are always at a disadvantage. The White House has seen the tenor and substance of the debate hijacked by charges both serious and silly. Worse, from their perspective, President Obama is being tied to reform bills he has neither endorsed nor blessed. The media and voters describe Congressional proposals as those of the Administration even though the President has stated only principles for reform, not details.

That changes tonight. Or at least, it starts to change tonight. President Obama is going to step into the health care debate over the next several weeks in a far more forceful fashion than before. While it’s unclear how specific he will get tonight, there is little doubt that he will be very clear about what he wants in a health care reform bill – and what he does not – over the next several days. My guess is he will use the introduction of mark-up of legislation by the Senate Finance Committee, expected to begin as early as next week, as his foundation. But whatever vehicle he commandeers (to mix metaphors), we are very close to moving past accusations concerning what Obamacare is to seeing what actually what the President’s plan actually looks like.

And this process begins with tonight’s speech. The folks over at Politico have a good “what to look for” post. Among the most significant items:

  1. Will President Obama keep it simple – and, consequently, comprehensible?
  2. Who will serve as the President’s foil? (My guess – insurance companies).
  3. Where does President Obama stand on a government-run insurance plan? We know he wants one, but will he threaten to veto a bill without a public plan?

Here’s some other questions to keep in mind while watching the President’s speech:

  1. Is the President specific about ways of reducing medical costs?
    Health insurance premiums reflect the underlying cost of health care. So does the burden of public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Will President Obama make this clear? And will he have ideas for dealing with them?
  2. How will the President frame the rationing issue?
    The spurious fear mongering around death panels not withstanding, the public has legitimate concerns about what reform will mean to their own access to health care. There is rationing of care under the status quo (based primarily on the quality of one’s health insurance), but it’s mostly hidden and subtle. Every health system rations care in some way. How explicit will the President be about the inevitable rationing resulting from his plan?
  3. What type of Health Care Exchange does the President support?
    Does he see these exchanges as bringing together information or are they actively negotiating with carriers concerning rates and benefits? Will they replace brokers or supplement them?
  4. How does President Obama describe the efforts in the Senate Finance Committee to shape bi-partisan reform?
    Does he describe their efforts as central to health care reform legislation or as just one of many sources? Does he give its chair, Senator Max Baucus, political support and cover or leave him to fend for himself? As regular readers know, I’m one of those who believe the bill the Senate Finance Committee produces will be close to what eventually emerges from Congress. Part of my reasoning has been that President Obama wants reform legislation . Which brings us to …
  5. Does President Obama show more interest in practical results or partisan purity?
    Will he seek to please the liberals or the moderates? Will he show a willingness to accept less than a full loaf or will he insist a host of specific elements be included in the reform bill?
  6. Will President Obama succeed in making the status quo unacceptable?
    The devil known is always more welcome than the unknown variety. Right now those attacking reform have the easier task. The President needs to reverse the argument, putting the burden on his critics to demonstrate that the current system is worth preserving – or that it can be preserved. If he fails, the Administration will remain on the defensive. Not a fatal setback, but a serious problem.

Watching the spin doctors go to work on the speech will be a fascinating lesson in politics. Watching them will also be annoying. One can predict what Fox News and MSNBC will be saying, but they don’t really matter. They preach primarily to established constituencies. The public that still has an open mind on the issue will be tuned to the networks, CNN and waiting for their morning paper.

As you listen to the reaction, keep in mind that tonight’s speech is only the beginning of the Administration’s final push for health care reform.  The game isn’t over tonight. It’s just beginning.