Analysis: Obama speech to Congress unlikely to be game changer

President Barack Obama’s address to Congress on healthcare reform was short on specifics and long on ideas he and his advisers had already floated this year.

The historic speech left some liberals wanting more details and conservatives emboldened to torpedo the president’s top domestic priority.

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The big question of the night was how Obama was going to address the public health insurance option, but he largely repeated what he has said for weeks: He supports it, but will sign a bill that does not have it.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) helped the president's case that some Republicans are playing politics with healthcare by yelling "you lie" during Obama's remarks, a maneuver that was decried by Republicans -- including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- as inappropriate.

Wilson subsequently apologized.

Still, while the speech once again illustrated the president’s extraordinary oratory skills, it was not a game changer and appears to leave the president with the same quandary:  Healthcare has become the pinnacle legislative issue of his first term, but has divided his party in Congress and run into almost universal GOP opposition. Polls suggest Americans are not convinced reform will help their lives and it is unclear whether the legislation Obama seeks will reach his desk.

Obama was expected to take the wheel on healthcare reform after the Democratic-led Congress drove it into a ditch over the summer, but it did not appear he did so.

As he as done throughout 2009, Obama is largely deferring to lawmakers on the details. His address drew laughs from Republicans when he said some details still needed to be worked out.

A Democratic strategist said, "The speech was good, but not transforming," adding the address "won't move votes or change what [Obama] called unresolved issues."

Obama urged Congress to stop bickering, something it is very good at. And he also asked lawmakers to cut entitlement programs, something that Congress is not very good at.

The president stressed that the cuts from the existing healthcare system will not hamper quality of care, but Congress has been seeking to reduce Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse for decades. Many of those efforts have failed because cutting entitlement programs in the name of fraud has run up against fierce lobbying efforts from industry groups. The last time Congress made wide-ranging healthcare cuts was a dozen years ago in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

Following the speech, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said on CNN he is not convinced healthcare reform can be paid for by finding savings in the existing healthcare system. Frank also indicated he is skeptical that there is a better way than the public option to cover the uninsured.

Obama, who proposed raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for healthcare reform on the campaign trail, did not talk about hiking taxes on individuals. Instead, he said “our healthcare system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers.”

Some liberals, including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), expressed disappointment that Obama was not more explicit on the public option. Other Democrats spun the president’s comments to suggest the public option is very much alive and could be in final bill.

Obama did reach out to Republicans with a scaled-back offer on medical malpractice reform. However, this idea was not new. He floated a similar olive branch months ago, but Democrats on Capitol Hill didn’t bite. Trial lawyers are strongly opposed to medical liability reform and thwarted it during George W. Bush’s administration.

Yet, even on Obama’s concessions to the GOP, the president’s stopped short of offering the kind of specifics that would attract Republican support.

The partisan congressional reaction to the speech was predictable. Perhaps more importantly, it was an indication that Congress is not ready to stop bickering. And Obama’s calling on lawmakers to behave differently is also an acknowledgement that, like his predecessor, he has not significantly changed the partisan tone of Washington.

Soon after the president began his speech, the White House released a two-page document on “the Obama plan.” This document mostly touched on ideas that the president has proposed in 2009. While there were some new wrinkles, such as a version of a healthcare plan offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the proposal was not as bold or specific as some Democrats had hoped.

Before the speech, it was unclear if the House healthcare bill that will hit the floor will have a public option. And it appeared that the public option in the Senate was all but dead. After the speech, there are still many unanswered questions on how Congress will proceed. 

This article was updated at 8:15 a.m.

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