Health Care: Hitting the Re-Set Button

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Harry Reid have now formally requested President Obama to address a joint session of Congress:

Our nation is closer than ever to achieving health insurance reform that will lower costs, retain choice, improve quality and expand coverage. We are committed to reaching this goal.

We would like to invite you to address a Joint Session of the Congress on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 on health insurance reform.

A big televised joint session address, as a means of launching the final push to health reform, is an idea that senior White House officials has been quietly discussing since at least July. But when I checked in as recently as yesterday, there was a fair amount of resistance to doing it next week, as it would come up against the 9/11 anniversary and the first anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse that turned the turmoil in the financial markets into a full-blown crisis. So why the rush? The only explanation that makes sense is that the prospects for health reform are dire.

What Obama can accomplish with a single speech, however, remains to be seen. 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. As George Stephanopoulos, then a top Clinton White House aide, would later write: “Too bad it would be the high point of the health care fight.” The next year saw Clinton’s most ambitious domestic initiative die a slow death, one that cost Democrats their control of Congress and nearly took down Clinton’s presidency as well. What’s more important than a speech right now is a strategy. White House officials know that too: Obama must get involved in the process as he has been reluctant to do until now. And he must speak with greater clarity about the choices involved. Will he insist on a public option? What will it look like? Who will pay for health reform? And will everyone get covered? If not, who will be left out?