From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama's three audiences: Perhaps the best way to view (and also judge) President Obama's health-care address tonight is to consider that he's speaking to three audiences. The first is ordinary American voters -- call them Joe and Jane from Kansas City. What we've picked up from the White House is that the president isn't expected to get into the legislative weeds in tonight's speech, but instead hopes to explain to Joe and Jane that his health-care reform will 1) cover nearly everyone and 2) cut costs in the long run. If that message isn't hammered home to Joe and Jane, then the White House will consider tonight's speech a failure. By the way, Joe and Jane in Kansas City live in the geographic AND political middle.
*** Fixing the public option fetish: But the speech also will be a failure if progressives -- Obama's second audience tonight -- are still obsessing over the public option a week from now. We've said this before and we'll say it again: Obama never made the public option the focus of his health-care ideas, in the primaries or in general election. In fact, he never uttered the words "public option" or "public plan" in his big campaign speeches on health care. But there is no doubt that the public option has fired up the left, and how he sells them near-universal coverage and lower costs -- even if it means no public plan -- could very well be the trickiest part of tonight's speech. Indeed, that the White House allowed this to become the be-all, end-all on the left ("Public option or die!") remains a mystery. On TODAY this morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that "there can be no reform without adequate choice and competition," but didn't say that choice and competition had to come from a public option.
*** Wiggle room: Here's one more thought on the public option: House Democratic leaders already seem to be softening their insistence on it. Yesterday, the top three House Dems -- Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn -- all left themselves some wiggle room on the issue. "If the public option isn't in there, I still could support a bill, because I think there is a lot in there that is good," Hoyer said, per NBC's Luke Russert. On MSNBC, Clyburn didn't draw a line on the sand on the issue either, saying that a "trigger" delaying a public option would be acceptable. And while Pelosi maintained that the public option was essential, she also said this: "We will have a public option in our [House] bill," which seemed to leave open the possibility that the final conference bill might omit it. By the way, the left should be happy about one thing: The compromise talk appears to revolve around the trigger, which keeps the potential for a public option alive. What aren't we hearing about anymore? Co-ops.
*** Snowe patrol: If there's a third audience tonight -- following Joe and Jane from Kansas City and progressives -- it's the lone Republican who remains a real player on health care: Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe. Her support, and her ability to bring along a conservative Democrat like Ben Nelson on something like the trigger, is the formula for Democrats getting 60 in the Senate and being able to bypass the tricky (and uncertain) reconciliation process. How important has Snowe become? Important enough that the liberal group Health Care for America Now (HCAN) is running a grassroots and advertising campaign just in Maine, which stresses that reform must include 1) allowing people to keep their health insurance if they like it; 2) forcing the insurers to behave; and 3) providing a public insurance option.
*** Great expectations: The sky is falling and tonight's speech is the only thing standing in the way of a political collapse!!!!! OK, that's not true. But judging by some of the breathless coverage, there certainly are incredible expectations for tonight's speech. The only thing folks aren't expecting, apparently, is for the president to announce, in detail, how he'll cure cancer. Every single news organization seems to be putting this speech in "do-or-die" terms. That said, in his interview with ABC this morning, Obama admitted to one thing that many inside the White House have whispered on background but ever never said on the record: that he left too much ambiguity, and that was because they left the details to Congress. It may be a "Captain Obvious" observation, but coming directly from the president is telling. That does sound like a president whose intent is grab hold of the health-care debate and own the legislation.
*** The skinny on tonight's speech: Obama delivers his speech to a joint session of Congress at 8:00 pm ET (and this morning he will speak at Walter Cronkite's funeral service in New York). Republicans have tapped GOP Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, a doctor, to give the Republican response to Obama's address. Also, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner will hold a news conference in the early afternoon to discuss what they see as the need for responsible, bipartisan health-care reform in advance of Obama's address tonight.
*** Palin returns … to the op-ed pages: Sure to take up a large part of the health-care discussion between now and when Obama delivers his remarks later tonight, Sarah Palin has penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the health-care legislation that has emerged so far from Congress has failed to live up to Obama's promises. More significantly perhaps, she once again raises the specter of these two words: "death panels." She writes, "Establishment voices dismissed that phrase, but it rang true for many Americans. Working through 'normal political channels,' they made themselves heard, and as a result Congress will likely reject a wrong-headed proposal to authorize end-of-life counseling in this cost-cutting context. But the fact remains that the Democrats' proposals would still empower unelected bureaucrats to make decisions affecting life or death health-care matters. Such government overreaching is what we've come to expect from this administration."
*** 'Gang of Six' update: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus told his bipartisan group trying to write a health-care reform bill that if a deal can be struck, he wants it done today before President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress, NBC's Ken Strickland says. Without specifically laying out a deadline, he suggested the talks will end soon. Baucus will meet with Finance Committee Democrats in the morning (11:00 am ET); the entire Senate Democratic caucus in its weekly luncheon in the afternoon (12:30 pm); and the "Gang of Six" later in the day (TBD). What will happen at 10:00 am? Will Grassley and Enzi present a counterproposal, making it unlikely Baucus has any official bill to present to his committee before the president's speech? Or will Baucus digest the counterproposal quickly in order to stay a player? If the president presents a plan before Baucus, does that make his committee no more than a legislative rubber stamp and Baucus himself less relevant? Who has more sway at this point with Snowe: Baucus or the president?
*** Perception vs. reality: As we mentioned yesterday, the other big political event today is the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, which could end up overturning precedents on restrictions over corporate and union advertising in elections. This comes as a new Gallup poll has this stunning finding: More folks believe the Supreme Court is "too liberal" versus "too conservative." It's the first time there has been a significant liberal perception advantage over the conservatives since before John Roberts joined the court. By the way, 50% said the court was "about right" -- the highest number Gallup's recorded in TWO DECADES.
*** Dodd to remain at Banking? It looks like Chris Dodd is going to buck the C.W. and keep his Senate Banking Committee gavel and not take over the Senate HELP Committee, chaired by the late Ted Kennedy. Dodd is supposed to make his decision public today. This would mean Tom Harkin would be next in line to take over Senate HELP. This is a mild surprise and something the left would be happy about, given that the initial response about Sen. Tim Johnson taking over Banking was not good. Also, worth noting: There was some concern among those trying to re-write the regulations for the financial world (which is perhaps the biggest story few are covering in Washington right now) that Johnson didn't have the staff in place to handle the other BIG legislative fight this year, financial reform.
*** Martinez's exit: Finally today, retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R) gives his farewell speech from the Senate floor at 10:30 am ET. His successor, George LeMieux, whom Florida Gov. (and Senate candidate) Charlie Crist appointed, will be sworn in on Thursday at 2:45 pm.
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 55 days
Countdown to Primary to Replace Ted Kennedy: 90 days
Countdown to Special Election to Replace Kennedy: 132 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 419 days