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First thoughts: What the doc ordered?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** What the doctor ordered? For Democratic members of Congress who want to pass health-care reform this fall, President Obama's speech last night was probably just what the doctor ordered. In it, Obama demonstrated some leadership that even he himself admitted was lacking ("The time for bickering is over… Now is the season for action"); he unveiled more specifics (a mandate for employers and individuals, a price tag of $900 billion over 10 years); and he rallied his Democratic troops by invoking the late Ted Kennedy. What they didn't hear, as expected, was a visible line in the sand on the public option ("We should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal"), although he once again stated his preference for it. Nor did Obama talk about raising taxes on the richest Americans, which probably has to occur to pay for the $900 billion reform. Still, the president sounded more like the guy who was in office the FIRST three months than the guy who has been in office the LAST three months.

*** Meeting his two goals: How will we know if the speech worked? The biggest clue: Whether congressional Democrats have political space to negotiate with each other. They needed the president to do a couple of things -- 1) calm down the political middle that reform isn't going make things worse, and 2) reassure the left that he's got a political spine. On those two scores, it was probably an effective speech. Don't get confused by the mention of Republicans and bipartisan rhetoric (floating the idea of a medical malpractice demonstration project) as the president's attempt to reach out to Republicans. That rhetoric was aimed as much at political independents to re-brand himself as the political pragmatist, adult, moderate, etc. in this debate. 

*** Joe Wilson's War: And what about the other side? Well, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson didn't help the GOP's cause one bit. Indeed, the most effective part of Obama's speech last night might not have been what he said -- but rather what Wilson yelled: "You lie." It could be an incredibly important moment for the president and the congressional Dem leadership because it does a couple of things: 1) paint a picture of the Republicans as ornery and hard to work with, and 2) remind conservative Democrats that they may not want to line up with folks like Joe Wilson when casting votes. Let's be honest: Wilson did more to undermine the GOP's efforts to come across as reasonable opposition as anything any conservative cable host has done in the past few months. Remember how conservatives were able to turn Cindy Sheehan into someone very difficult for the anti-war Democrats in Congress to support during the Bush years? Well, Wilson could end up providing that kind of symbolism. In short, he gave voice -- literally -- to the president's attempts to paint some of his opponents as shrill.

*** A verbal sucker punch: Wilson apologized last night in a statement ("I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility") and in a call to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. But the damage was done and it may take a long time to repair. It was a sad day in Washington that polarization has gotten so bad that a member of Congress thinks it's appropriate to shout down the president. So what should Wilson's punishment be? After all, it was a verbal sucker punch, and we just saw one football player get suspended for the year for a sucker punch. By the way, the DCCC tells First Read that in the eight hours since Wilson's outburst, his Democratic opponent in 2010, former Marine Rob Miller, has received nearly 3,000 individual grassroots contributions, raising about $100,000.

*** What about the public option? The most fascinating part of reading the punditry and analysis of the speech is to see the number of DIFFERENT ways folks are reading between the lines regarding the president's stand on the public option. So on this score, he did NOTHING to clear up his position on this subject. Obviously, he made it pretty clear there's wiggle room here. And check what one liberal/progressive member of the House Dem caucus said last night to MSNBC's Ed Schultz:  "The progressives … are going to have a hard time just ignoring the president… The face that he showed he's willing to get tough, I think may back some people down. I think some people were taking him for granted." Folks, the public option needs an "al" at the end of the word option; the idea is "optional."

*** Other observations: The president decided to eliminate the illegal immigrant total from the uninsured estimates, so suddenly instead of 46 million uninsured the president put the number at approximately 30 million… What was under-reported was the financial trigger he promised. It strikes us as a "made for C.B.O." idea; that is, it's about making sure that his plan will score as deficit neutral… On TODAY this morning, Vice President Biden said he expects a "bill before Thanksgiving."

*** So what's next? Need more evidence at whom last night's speech was aimed? Just look at the president's schedule today: At 10:15 am ET, President Obama will deliver a few more remarks on health-care reform and will meet with his cabinet 30 minutes later. Then, later this afternoon, he meets with moderate Senate Democrats to discuss health care. According to NBC's Ken Strickland, the invitees are members of the Moderate Dem Working Group and represent critical -- yet unsecured -- votes. For many of them, the notion of a government run health insurance program is a trouble spot and possible deal breaker. "I believe that we can make necessary reforms without creating a purely public, new government entitlement program," moderate Blanche Lincoln said in her statement following the speech. Still, the moderates were generally supportive of the president's broad case for healthcare reform, but none of them was moved enough by his speech to offer blanket support. "There are still obstacles ahead and I'll need to be convinced on some issues," Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said.

*** On to … Minnesota! However, it's interesting that the White House has decided to do its first rally after the speech in the Democratic state of Minnesota. Not Nebraska, not Maine, not Iowa. In fact, he's going to the state which awarded his party its 60th Senate seat. Again, it's more evidence that the president's goal now is to unite the Democrats and do whatever it takes to keep the party together on this. In the Senate, that COULD mean wooing Republican Olympia Snowe whose support then gives cover to folks like Ben Nelson and Lincoln.

*** A goodbye and a welcome: Yesterday, retiring Florida Sen. Mel Martinez gave his farewell address from the Senate floor. Today, at 2:45 pm ET, his temporary replacement, George LeMieux, gets sworn in by Vice President Biden.

*** Austin City Limits: Finally, the Democratic National Committee today begins holding its fall meeting down in Austin, TX. (How did the DNC score hotel rooms during football season? Well, the Longhorns are on the road this weekend…)

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 54 days
Countdown to Primary to Replace Ted Kennedy: 89 days
Countdown to Special Election to Replace Kennedy: 131 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 418 days

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