The Hill: What happened to the new plan?

The Hill locks onto an aspect of the President’s speech that escaped me during my earlier analysis, which is the expectation that Barack Obama would bring his own plan to Capitol Hill.  The White House had told the press last week that Obama would take charge of the debate by offering a new plan that would address many of the concerns raised in the debate and assume leadership of the crusade.  What happened to the Obama plan?  It turned out to be a no-show:

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. …

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.

The White House blew expectation management with this speech.  They built this up as the moment that Obama would wrest control of the debate from the partisans of both parties and return it to the middle, where Americans want to see real reform without massive government intervention.  That set-up strongly implied that Obama had become dissatisfied not just with the tone of the debate but also the direction of legislation.

Even if Obama didn’t have his own plan at the ready, he had an outlet to claim the middle.  Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) just produced his own plan, one which keeps mandates but eliminates the public option, a component that has gotten less support from the administration in the last couple of weeks.  Had Obama wanted, he could have just pointed to the Baucus plan as a start on a reasonable compromise.  Instead, Obama never mentioned Baucus once in his speech, and doubled down on the public option instead.

Given the White House preparation for the press on this speech, it suggests that no one there has a clue what they’re doing on health-care reform, least of all the President himself.  One day they’re insisting that the public option isn’t essential, then it is, then it’s not again, and then the President demands it on national television.  They’ll have their own plan, they claim, and then Obama’s speech has no specifics but instead endorses HR3200.

If there’s a strategy involved here, it’s inscrutable.  The only argument the White House appears to be making at the moment is one of incompetence, especially in messaging, and a growing sense of desperate flailing.

Update: On the center-left, Eric Black agrees that this was no game-changer.  Eric thinks Obama tried to do too much in one speech.  Be sure to read it all.