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updated 9/10/2009 11:45:47 AM ET 2009-09-10T15:45:47

Guests: Lawrence O‘Donnell, Chuck Todd, Howard Fineman, David Gregory, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Claire McCaskill, David Axelrod, Clarence Page

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC GUEST ANCHOR:  The president‘s big night. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell in for Chris Matthews in Washington, leading off tonight President Obama‘s big night.

In one hour, President Obama will address a joint session of Congress hoping to save health care reform.  And while it is going too far to say Barack Obama‘s presidency rides on tonight‘s speech, there is general agreement that the president has lost control of the debate and that tonight is the president‘s chance to hit the reset button.

What should we look for tonight?  Who is the president‘s real audience?  How will we know if this speech is a success?

We‘ll give you a smart viewer‘s guide to tonight‘s speech coming right up.

We‘ll hear from the man at the center of the president‘s inner circle, David Axelrod, who will preview what we can expect from the president tonight.

Getting to 60 -- what kind of deal does President Obama have to make to win over a Republican or two and get to that magic filibuster proof 60 votes in the Senate?  Senator Claire McCaskill joins us.

What will the president say about a public option?  Liberals are promising to draw a line in the sand and insist no public option, no bill.

And finally, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow will join us with their perspective on what‘s at stake for the president tonight.

Our coverage of President Obama‘s speech and the Republican response begins at 8:00 Eastern time.  After that, it‘s “Countdown” with Keith at 9:00.  “Rachel Maddow Show” at 10:00 and “The Ed Show” with Ed Schultz will be at 11:00.

But first, we begin with the smart viewers‘ guide to what to watch for tonight.  NBC News Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd is NBC‘s political director and “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman is an MSNBC political analyst.

Let‘s look at the latest poll that the president is up against on this.  A new AP poll finds a majority, 52 percent disapprove of the president‘s job on health care.  It was only 43 percent in July, which everyone thought was bad enough then.

Here‘s a part, just a bit of what the president will say tonight to give you a feel for the tone of this.  “But know this, I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it‘s better politics to kill this plan than improve it.  I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are.  If you misrepresent what‘s in the plan, we will call you out.  I will not accept the status quo as a solution, not this time.  Not now.”

Chuck Todd, we have heard that chorus before.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  “Not this time, not now.”  We heard that in the campaign.  Is this Barack Obama trying to use campaign skills to influence the politics of governing?

TODD:  Well, I think a little bit from the speech.  You always know what they want the pre-spin to be by which excerpts they release, right?  And so it‘s clear they would like the president to be seen as the adult in the room; right?  He is the guy that‘s now going to corral the bickering Democrats between the ones fighting over public option, not public option, different parts of that.

He is going to be the guy that tries to get back to this idea of post-partisanship.  He is going to be the guy that sort of tries to set aside some of these—some of the ugliness that he believes took place during July and August when it obviously did damage to his own poll ratings.

And so, you know, that‘s one part of the speech.  I think it‘s not going to be—this is not going to be Barack Obama trying to do red America/blue America/United States of America.  He wants to—you talk to aides—it‘s going to be a very direct speech.

And it‘s going to be a lot of details this time because they want people to come away, Joe and Jane in Kansas City being able to easily say what Barack Obama‘s plan is.

O‘DONNELL:  Ok guys let‘s talk about what the president is going to talk about tonight.

First of all, Howard, the public option.  How strong is the president going to back the public option?  I get the feeling he‘s not going to wave a veto pen over this.  But how tough is he going to get on his support for the public option?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Well, I think he‘s going to try to explain it clearly and defend it, not the man but the defendant.  And I agree with Chuck.  This is not going to be a high-flown rhetorical speech.  There‘s a kind of a utilitarian quality to this.  He has to clearly, concisely, convincingly explain what he wants.

On the public option he‘ll try to make it irresistible but he‘s not going to demand it.  And he‘s going to try to explain it more clearly than frankly it‘s been explained in the past.

O‘DONNELL:  Chuck, this is an audience, it‘s is an address to the entire nation.  It‘s an address to the Congress.

TODD:  Sure.

O‘DONNELL:  But it‘s an address very specifically to the state of Maine and the two senators from the State of Maine, especially Olympia Snowe.

TODD:  He should just go up there, yes, yes.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, why didn‘t he do it in Maine?

TODD:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re going to—well, you know, there‘s going to be a camera on Olympia Snowe throughout this thing to see exactly when she claps...

TODD:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  ...and when she doesn‘t, what she likes, what she doesn‘t like.

TODD:  The Snowe meter.

O‘DONNELL:  The Snowe meter.  There you go, Chuck Todd‘s Snowe meter. 

Tell us what to look for in Olympia Snowe‘s reactions tonight.

TODD:  Well, look, we talk about the public option.  Olympia Snowe is the first one—and she takes credit for the idea of the trigger.

Now, to explain the trigger, that‘s this idea where basically they would pass a health care reform bill and they would be open to the threat, basically, government would be telling the private insurance companies, “We are leaving the option open that we will institute a government-run insurance program if you do not meet these specific goals, if you do not meet this number of—you know, if you don‘t do what these reforms are supposed to make you do then we‘ll start this public option.”

She‘s the one that came up with this idea.  She talked about it earlier on our air here on MSNBC that this is the way that she sees as a potential to bridge the divide.

You have Ben Nelson, a conservative Democratic Senator from Nebraska who has expressed openness to the trigger if, in his words, it‘s a real trigger.

So, you know, that in and of itself, the fact that she is still willing to stand by it tells you, I think that‘s where this thing is going on the public option.

The other thing the president wants to do with the public option by the way is put it in context.  He feels like, this White House feels like it has become the centerpiece of discussion when really in their minds as far as health care reform it‘s only about 10 percent of all of the health care reform they‘re trying to do.

O‘DONNELL:  Ok, Howard first, watch what the president says about the public option and see how tough he is.

FINEMAN:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  Second, watch Olympia Snowe every minute of the speech.

Third, what about the word “reconciliation?”  Now, presidents don‘t like to get too technical on legislative processes...

FINEMAN:  Yes.

O‘DONNELL:  ...in speeches like this.

So my bet is we might not hear that word, reconciliation.

FINEMAN:  No.

O‘DONNELL:  But will there be code language in there that says to Republicans, “I am prepared to take this bill through the reconciliation process in the Senate and the House which means I will only need 50 votes for final passage and I don‘t need any of you Republicans if you‘re not willing to play.”

Is he going to make some kind of procedural threat about using reconciliation?

FINEMAN:  Well, I don‘t think you‘ll get in the weeds of procedure.  But you heard—you read the coded version of saying we‘re going to go it alone if we have to go it alone.  He‘s already said that in the excerpt you have there.

I think he‘s going to try to say some things that are appealing to Republicans.  This is the last—this speech will be the last clear chance for Republicans to get aboard some kind of bipartisan deal.

There will be bones thrown to various Republicans tonight, I think.  But the president is going to do that as a predicate to saying, “I tried, this is my last effort with these people, they‘re not going to work with us and except maybe for Olympia Snowe in the Senate, we‘re going to go—go it alone.”

TODD:  I slightly disagree.

O‘DONNELL:  Go ahead.

TODD:  I slightly disagree in that I think there is going to be a lot of mentions of Republican ideas.  They‘re going to probably mention probably John McCain by name at some point in this speech.

But I think that is all for show.  It is about sending the message to the political middle.  The independents in this country who have been the ones that have turned thumbs down on the president on health care as a way of saying, “Hey wait a minute, I‘m not the one that‘s polarizing this thing.  Look, here are all my Republican ideas.  It‘s those guys.”

O‘DONNELL:  Chuck, where does the president go from here?  And I mean, literally where?  Is he going to go back out on the road around the country to sell this or is he going to go up to the Hill and go into Democratic caucus rooms and try to sell it eye to eye with members of Congress?

TODD:  Expect to see two things.  Yes, a road show, that‘s on Saturday.  We know that.  He‘s going to Minneapolis.  That‘s as friendly of a territory as you‘re going to find, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for things like this.

But don‘t be surprised.  It may not happen tomorrow, but it‘s going to happen soon that you will see all of the key players on health care basically be brought to the White House.  And maybe he‘ll go over there.  But I‘m guessing they will be brought here.  Because the whole point of this speech tonight is to make this the Obama plan.

The president is taking it over.  On point now is basically the message of this speech tonight.  So he‘s going to bring those key members of Congress here to get—to sort of continue to jumpstart the process.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, go ahead Howard.

FINEMAN:  And by the way, I don‘t think Chuck and I were really disagreeing there.  But be that as it may, the fact that he‘s going to Minnesota tells you what‘s going to happen here.

They‘re going to do a Democrats-only deal in the end.  And Obama‘s challenge is going to be to keep the left wing of the Democratic from revolting over it.  That‘s why you go to Minnesota, as Chuck said, a heartland Democratic territory.  Obama will be saying, “Look, stick with me, I‘ll get you two thirds of what you want, maybe not all of it.”

O‘DONNELL:  Chuck, has the White House has been able to cite for you a model of a previous presidency where a president got up there and gave a speech like this that saved legislation in trouble?

TODD:  No, I mean, they haven‘t.  And we haven‘t—this is rare—but they will say this, that obviously the speech—the political tool of the big speech has been helpful to Barack Obama‘s career.

So this is something they‘re comfortable doing and they—I think they see it as the last best chance to save health care reform and at least try to get it off the table, because there‘s one other aspect of this; remember, they‘re not going to use health care now to fix his politics.  At this point they just need to get it done.

They feel like doing nothing will really hurt him.  Getting something done will get the voters to give him a pass for getting something done.  And then he can move on and really work on whatever problems he has with the political middle.

FINEMAN:  His aim is to say I did something historic.  Take the bad poll ratings now in exchange for being able to make that claim to history later on.

O‘DONNELL:  Ok thank you Howard Fineman.

TODD:  Character test, yes.

O‘DONNELL:  And thank you, Chuck Todd.

Coming up, can President Obama unite his own party in Congress tonight?  We‘ll ask one of his closest backers in the senate, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re now less than 45 minutes away from President Obama‘s address to Congress and the nation on health care reform.

One of the people who will be in the House chamber listening closely to every word is Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Senator McCaskill, you have some—some turbulence in your town hall meetings back in the state during the August recess.  What do you need the president to say tonight to get your state behind health care reform Obama style?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) MISSOURI:  Well, we‘ve got to fill in the blanks here.  We‘ve let misinformation kind of take root and he‘s got to really clarify that so much of what people have heard is just flat wrong.

And he also has to lay out the stakes, Lawrence.  I mean, the price of doing nothing really is huge.  It is huge for middle class Missourians, it is huge for small businesses—and it‘s huge for our big companies in terms of competitiveness.

And I think the Republican Party is doing a gut check right now.  Because I think they are beginning to realize that blocking health care reform is very risky business politically.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, the public option is what everyone‘s concentrating on.  And it has gotten the most criticism in the last several weeks.  What do you want to hear the president say tonight about the public option?

MCCASKILL:  Well, I think we‘ve gotten in some ways the public option has been the shiny object that has distracted us from a lot of the work that needs to get done in this bill.  And I hope the president leads with all the things we agree on.  Because that kind of, like, gets them out from under the cover that they‘re really playing political games.

He‘s got to call out the political games that are being played.  Because there‘s a huge amount of insurance reform, there‘s a huge amount of market reform that I think the vast majority of Americans and frankly, the vast majority of Congress agrees with.

Whether we provide a public option or a co-op, something that we can inject into this exchange of the companies to provide some competition, I don‘t know if we‘ll get that done.  I think we will.  But it‘s not as important as getting this insurance reform done.

O‘DONNELL:  What do you say to the left side of the Democratic Party, people who believe that there‘s no reform worth doing without the public option?

MCCASKILL:  I think they need to keep an open mind.  This president is committed to providing quality, affordable health care to all of America, but this is hard.  And frankly, if it were easy it would have been done a long time ago.

We‘ve struggled with this because Congress is really good at kicking things down the road when things get controversial.  This is hard stuff.  And everyone needs to not get their feet stuck in cement here and be intractable.

Whether it‘s our party or whether it‘s their party.  We need to listen to the president tonight, come together on a plan that makes sense for most of America and get it done.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, the public option is one of the controversial elements, but there‘s also behind that all sorts of things that haven‘t gotten any real public scrutiny yet like the three new top tax brackets that were voted on in the committees of the House of Representatives.

The Finance Committee now saying they want to put a 35 percent tax on health insurance plans that are worth more than $8,000 a year which is an awful lot of people‘s health insurance plans.

Can you vote for elements like that?  Are you, tonight—do you know what you can vote for and what you can‘t vote for in health care reform?

MCCASKILL:  I don‘t yet because we haven‘t seen the details of the Finance plan.  I‘m committed to a bill that‘s deficit neutral so we‘ve got to figure out a way to pay for it.  I think we‘ve got to look at some of the waste and bloat that we have right now.

We are—right now the government is so involved in health insurance in the private sector, we‘re transferring tax dollars to these insurance companies, through Medicare “D” through Medicare advantage.  We need to clean of that problem in this bill, that‘s a lot of money that we can use to pay for what we‘re doing with health care reform.

But I think taxing insurance companies on very high-end plans is on the table.  I wouldn‘t agree with something as low as $6,000, $8,000.  But if we‘re talking about Cadillac plans and the taxes to the insurance company and not to the person who receives the benefit, then I think that is possible.

O‘DONNELL:  But if you tax an insurance company that provides me a benefit, that company is obviously going to immediately have to cut my benefits to pay that tax so my plan will change and the Obama argument that if you like your plan you can keep it starts to fall apart when the insurance companies have to change the plans because of a 35 percent tax.

MCCASKILL:  Not necessarily if they are encouraged to bring down costs in other ways.  That‘s why this public option or co-op becomes more important.

They‘re very profitable now.  These companies have really enjoyed great profit over the last seven, eight years.  While health care costs have continued to climb and premiums have continued to climb, their profits have been substantial.  So I don‘t think necessarily that it‘s a pass through to the people who receive the benefits.

O‘DONNELL:  Senator, you worked hard to elect Barack Obama and you worked hard to push up the Democratic majority in the Senate, get them up to 60.  Did you ever think during that campaign year that what you were really doing was designing a United States Senate in which Olympia Snowe would become the most powerful senator in the building?

MCCASKILL:  You know, Lawrence, you‘ve spent some time around here.  And I actually understood that getting to the arbitrary number of 60 really wasn‘t going to make a huge difference because many moderate Republicans were replaced by moderate Democrats from states that are not bright blue, from states that, frankly, supported John McCain for president.

So we have a lot of moderate members now in our party where there used to be moderates in the Republican Party.  They‘re all gone.  We beat them all.  And now there‘s just a handful which is Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

I think that people need to take a deep breath.  I think our party will come together on meaningful health care reform.  But the president is going to have to fill in some of the question markets right now.

Right now in Missouri, unfortunately, for some people they are more comfortable with the devil they know than the devil they don‘t know.  They are assuming the worst about what‘s being proposed.  We have to explain to them the best parts of what‘s being proposed.

O‘DONNELL:  I know you have to run over the house chamber and grab your seat before someone else steals it from you.  Thanks for joining us, Claire McCaskill.

MCCASKILL:  Ok.  Thank you Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  Up next, we‘ll hear from Obama senior adviser David Axelrod on what he hopes the president will achieve tonight.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

With us tonight to preview tonight‘s presidential address to Congress, White House senior adviser David Axelrod.  Welcome, David Axelrod.

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER:  Thanks, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  As you‘ve learned in the last nine months the politics of governing is about, oh, I don‘t know, 100 times more difficult than the politics of campaigning?  Was there anyone in the White House in January who warned the president that it could be this difficult to get health care passed? 

AXELROD:  Oh, I think there was a vigorous discussion about this, Lawrence.  At the end of the day the president felt this was a—such a pressing problem for the country and for families and businesses around the country, for the government, ultimately, because of the cost, that we had to do something.  And he understood there was political risk involved with it and his attitude is that he‘s not here to horde his political capital.  He‘s here to solve problems and that‘s what he‘s trying to do.

O‘DONNELL:  Let‘s list to what the president had to say on “Good Morning America” this morning.  He acknowledged making some mistakes along the way.  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do their thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there which allowed then opponents of reform to come in and to fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  David Axelrod, has your playbook, in effect, been whatever the Clintons did, let‘s do the opposite?  They wrote a very specific bill, sent it up to the Hill.  It didn‘t get where it needed to go.  So you took the opposite tack of, let‘s make it clear that the legislation will be written in the committees? 

AXELROD:  Well, look, if you look at where we are today, we‘re farther than anybody has been.  Four out of the five committees have passed health reform bills.  The fifth committee of jurisdiction, the committee where you once worked, Lawrence, the finance committee in the Senate said, today, that they‘re going to pass something next week.

Then we‘ll be able to go to the floor and move this process along.  I think that we‘ve done the right thing.  The president wanted to let the debate go on.  He felt this was a serious issue.  It warranted that kind of debate.

Get all the ideas on the table and then come back in the fall and bring those strands together and get the job done.  I think we‘re in a position to do that.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, is the president going to make it clear what he can‘t live with tonight, because there‘s a bunch of proposals out there already in the various committees that violate Obama campaign promises.  He has not said that it‘s okay to violate those promises and he has not said that it isn‘t okay to violate those promises.  I don‘t quite get where he is on that.  Is he going to make that clear tonight?

AXELROD:  It will be very clear what he thinks the major components of this plan are, Lawrence.  He‘ll make the case for them and there are some things on which he‘s become persuaded that he was opposed to as a candidate.  There are others that he still feels very, very strongly about but what has never changed is the goal.

The goal is to bring stability and security to the people who have insurance so that they have strong consumer protections, out of pocket costs, prohibition against a ban on people with pre-existing conditions so you can‘t get thrown off your insurance if you get sick and a marketplace where people can go if they don‘t have insurance.  Small businesses and the uninsured where they can get it for a price they can afford.  All in the context of trying to bring the overall cost down of health care.

And I think we‘re close to achieving that and the president will speak to that tonight. 

O‘DONNELL:  David, you know, I worked in the finance committee in ‘94 what we found was when the Republicans gained an advantage, when they managed to knock one piece out of the bill, they didn‘t stop there and they went on to the next thing.  They‘re on the public option now.  They seem on the verge of succeeding, of knocking that out of the health care bill.

The next thing standing after that is the employer mandate which Republicans oppose and the individual mandate and during the Democratic primaries the only difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in terms of governing going forward was the Obama candidacy was opposed to mandates in health care and Hillary was in favor of mandates in health care.

It seems to me all the Republicans need to do to knock out the mandates is use Barack Obama‘s eloquent arguments against mandates in the campaign.  Are you expecting that next?

AXELROD:  Well, first of all I wouldn‘t make your assumption.  The president is going to make the case for a public option within this health insurance exchange tonight.

In other words, that pool that‘s being created for uninsured workers and small businesses so that there is a guarantee of competition and choice within these—within that exchange.  There are markets in this country—states in this country where one insurance company has 90 percent of the business.  That‘s not healthy for consumers.

I wouldn‘t assume that some form of that public option will not be in the final legislation.  And he‘ll speak to that tonight on—in terms of the mandate.  He‘s come to believe that everyone has to have a responsibility within the health care system.  We pay $1,000 more per person because of what we have to pay to cover the uninsured who go and get care and don‘t have insurance to cover it.

So if we make insurance affordable to people, they have the responsibility to take advantage of it.  

O‘DONNELL:  Chairman Baucus in the Finance Committee has released an 18-page outline of what will probably the legislation he introduces next week.  One of the components of that involves a 35 percent tax on health insurance plans that are valued at over $8,000 per year.

Now, you guys have been very quick to say that if you like your plan you can keep it, but that tax will tax my plan or someone who has a plan over $8,000.  It will tax that plan 35 percent which means it will immediately cut the benefits of that plan by 35 percent, so people‘s plans will not be what they were before this legislation went through with a provision like that.

How do you square a provision like that with the idea that if you like your plan you can keep it? 

AXELROD:  Lawrence, I can probably pick provisions out of every single one of these committee plans that the president would not find to his liking.  He‘ll have his own proposal on this and will speak to it tonight.

This is one committee of five and you know the legislative process better than anyone else.  They‘ll pass their bill.  There will be a meeting of the minds in the Senate.  There‘ll be a bill passed out of the House; there‘ll be a meeting of the minds there.  And then they‘ll bring the two bills together and we‘ll see where we wind up.

I‘m not going to comment on individual items in any of these bills at this juncture.  I‘ll let the president speak for himself tonight.

O‘DONNELL:  David, you lead the best speech-writing team I think in the history of that building behind you.  Are you using any models in previous presidencies of where a speech saved legislation?

AXELROD:  Well, I don‘t think we‘re—I would dispute the premise of your question.  I don‘t believe that we‘re in a place where we have to save anything.  I think we‘ve made great progress today with the announcement of the Senate finance committee.  We have more progress and we‘re on the doorstep of getting this done.

What‘s needed now is to tie this together so that we get the final ten yards.  And there I think a speech would be valuable because I think it will give a clear sense of direction to members of Congress and a clear sense to the country about the plan that the president supports, not individual committees, but the president‘s plan for moving forward. 

O‘DONNELL:  By the way—go ahead.  

AXELROD:  I‘d say one other thing.  We do have a great speech-writing team but we‘re working for the best speechwriter who‘s been in that office for many, many moons.  He‘s worked on this, himself.

O‘DONNELL:  I agree.  You have the best speech-writing team and best speech giver but I can‘t think of an instance in where a speech saved legislations that was in trouble.  This, you‘re going to have to agree, this is legislation that is currently in trouble.  

AXELROD:  I don‘t agree with that, Lawrence.  We‘ll see.  At the end of the day we‘ll get together and we‘ll have a beer and we‘ll figure out who was right and who was wrong.  

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Can‘t wait.  Thank you very much, David Axelrod.  

AXELROD:  All right.

O‘DONNELL:  Up next, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” David Gregory will be with us as we continue our preview to President Obama‘s speech to Congress tonight; just now about 30 minutes away.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, everyone, I‘m Milissa Rehberger.  Here‘s what‘s happening.

Mexican authorities have arrested at least one person after a midair hijacking over Mexico City.  A passenger jet from Cancun was briefly hijacked as it was about to land.  More than 100 passengers including Americans were released just before federal police stormed the plane.  The crew emerged unharmed just a few moments later.

The suspect reportedly used a fake bomb to hijack the plane.  Authorities are describing him as a religious fanatic who said he needed to warn the Mexican president of an impending natural disaster.

Back here at home, the Federal Reserve issued its latest report on the economy today.  The fed said the recession is definitely coming to an end but high unemployment along with the struggling auto industry and a weakening commercial real estate market will continue to be a drag on the recovery.  The markets initially moved lower on that report but the major indices ended the day in positive territory.

Now back to our special edition of HARDBALL.

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Less than a half hour until the president addresses a joint session of Congress.  Joining me: David Gregory, moderator of “Meet the Press,” and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.

David Gregory, you‘ve been pulling teeth at the White House these days working the old sources from the old beat.  They‘ve told you everything that‘s going to be in the speech.  No surprises for you at this point? 

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR “MEET THE PRESS”:  Well, I think there aren‘t going to be a lot of surprises.  I think that the primary goal and what they say is the primary goal is that the president has got to connect here.  He has to do something that he hasn‘t done on this debate.  He has to regain control of it.

He has to try to drive up some public support for the reform effort if he‘s going to then put the screws to those members of Congress who are now so rebellious.

The interesting thing is what he‘s preparing to do to Republicans.  The idea of bipartisanship doesn‘t seem like it‘s alive and kicking but putting Republicans on the spot—and what the president wants to do is say, “Look, you Republicans have proposed some ideas over the years and those ideas are actually in the plan that I am presenting tonight.  So I dare you.  Are you going to be against it still?”

He won‘t use that language but I think that‘s some of the point that he‘ll try to get across tonight.

O‘DONNELL:  Clarence Page, when I was chief of staff of the Senate finance committee in ‘94 we tried the same tactic.  And we actually had people like John Chafee, who was a Republican moderate from Rhode Island.  We presented a bill with an individual mandate in it.

As we started to move toward compromise he was no longer in favor of the individual mandate in his own bill.  This—well, it‘s what happens.  It‘s what happens to this kind of legislation.  It tends to go only in one direction because every single piece of it has a negative side to it.

There‘s a negative story to tell about the individual mandate as well as a very positive one.  It‘s the negative side of the story that the Republicans always find their way to.  And how can Obama do something tonight that can turn the public from 52 percent opposed to Obama‘s approach, which is where they are now, to what?  52 percent in favor?  I mean, what can he possibly push that number up to? 

CLARENCE PAGE, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Well, he needs to educate the public.  He had hoped the public would be more educated about what the legislation actually calls for before the August recess.  We‘re late in the game now.  By NBC‘s own polls, a large share of the public doesn‘t know exactly what a public mandate is or they have different ideas of it.

He has to do that education job he really should have done at that last primetime news conference that somehow got overwhelmed by the police profiling issue.  

GREGORY:  But isn‘t it striking that what you were dealing with back in ‘94, what was elusive at that point was the idea of something approaching universal coverage and having the insurance companies on board.  They appear to have that.  Yet, what are we talking about?  We‘re talking about the public option which is something that nobody campaigned on.

(CROSS TALK)

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s the thing.  There‘s this mirage about who‘s on

board.  In legislation you‘re not really on board until we‘re voting.  So

the health insurance companies have, quote, been on board.  Until today

when Max Baucus comes out and says, we‘re going to tax health insurance

companies with a 35 percent tax.  An unprecedented surtax on individual

companies if they offer certain kinds of health

That means all health insurance companies are opposed to this bill as of today.  No matter what they‘ve said along the way. 

PAGE:  Lawrence, you‘re right.  But you know, Democrats, just this time—I‘m not much of an expert on the eternal workings of the Senate or the Congress especially as you are—but Democrats today from what they‘re telling me, they really are concerned about having a replay of Hillary Clinton and bill Clinton‘s failures a decade ago back in the early ‘90s and the price they paid in the midterm elections.

And that I think is going to be one reason why they have to come up with some legislation here.  Not only pass this but also something worth bragging about. 

GREGORY:  Well, here‘s the other thing which is to challenge the notion—which I think obviously the White House is challenging your take on the idea that legislation goes in one direction, right?  They don‘t want to accept that reality.

What they‘ll say is what‘s different now is that Democrats in leadership understand the consequences of inaction, so they‘re going to do everything they can to produce something.

Now, are the insurance companies, will they change their tune?  They‘re still at the negotiating table and that‘s where the president wants them because at least they‘re not away at this point.  They have some time to maneuver.  That‘s their argument that Democrats understand the consequences of inaction, therefore, they have to get something.  And the question is, what are the parameters of that something? 

O‘DONNELL:  Consequences of inaction, there are two interpretations of that.  Back in ‘94 as we went into the election, what the Democrats in the Congress believed by the time we got to the election was the mistake that we made was scaring the public for as long as we did that we were actually going to pass something.

If we had failed a lot earlier and they were calm about these Democrats not scaring them anymore, we wouldn‘t have lost so much.  So this theory that the White House and that others on the hill are advancing that we will be penalized for passing something, what if you pass something that is opposed by 52 percent of the American public?  What‘s your penalty for that?

PAGE:  I think we‘re misreading the polls if we think the public has turned against health care reform.  They‘ve turned against what they‘ve heard about health care reform.  What have they heard?  They‘ve been hearing what the Republican version of it is: government health care, death panel, all those buzz words.

The Democrats have not put their own name on this proposal.  The Republicans have named it Obama care.  They have had too much of their argument defined by opponents to what they want to do.  I think if you really describe it to the public in a way that shows the positive things they‘re trying to do, they can win back a lot of that support.  

GREGORY:  I also think, you know, this is a leadership test.  Independent voters, voters across the political spectrum, they want reformers, they want reform to look like reform.  What is reform?

Reform is not just the government swoops in and pays for everything and make stuff better.  It‘s actually reform.  It‘s cost containment.  It‘s something that gets paid for over time.  It‘s something that you notice makes a difference in your life.

The problem is this wouldn‘t take effect until 2013.  Maybe there are some things that the president can talk about tonight that would advance some opportunities for people to get additional care like catastrophic coverage.

But I think that‘s the leadership test.  He‘s got to sound and act like a reformer to make people confident in his leadership abilities again.  It can‘t just be, hey, I got all the money in the world, I‘m going to throw at it here.  He has actually got to make a difference.

O‘DONNELL:  But Clarence, what does he have to do after tonight?  Because what we know happens is next week, Max Baucus of the finance committee comes out and says, here‘s my bill.  A week after that he‘s going to have a markup, as they say in the finance committee where they‘re voting on the bill.  That will take several days.

There will be debate, amendments, there‘ll be a real story to follow there.  The president will no longer be in control of that story when the finance committee is acting.  And on a daily basis that committee is going to come up with new proposals that were not mentioned in the Obama speech.  So I as a voter am sitting out there saying, I was with Obama when I heard his speech but they‘re talking about some stuff that I‘m a little confused about.

Does he have to come back and give another speech?

PAGE:  He has to get a handle on that.  His strategy up until now is to avoid the Clinton mistakes and let Congress work out the details of all this.  That has not worked out so well so far.  

O‘DONNELL:  He lost control of the onus of this.

GREGORY:  He has to work it, too.  He has to which mean working the votes.  Getting a-hold of what actually gets passed.  You know, he‘s in a position to do that if he can get something out of committee and start—or usually before committee, but if he can get it out and start working individual members.

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re going to have to leave it there for now.  Thank you David Gregory and Clarence Page.  

Up next, MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow will be with us to take us into the president‘s address to a joint session of Congress coming up at the top of the hour.

This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  We are back with just about ten minutes before President Obama‘s address to Congress.  There you see Orrin Hatch, Chuck Schumer, other senators taking their positions in the house chamber.

Joining us now: Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.  Keith Olbermann, how does the president achieve success tonight in this speech? 

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST, COUNTDOWN:  I don‘t know, Lawrence.  Honestly I‘ve been thinking about this more and more in the context of having been exposed to the latest version of our health care system over the last couple weeks in my own family again for the second time this year.

I was thinking about this in the context of American history and the decision in the 1880s I guess it was that reaffirmed the right for corporations to be treated as human beings without the responsibility of human beings.  Since then American history could be largely written about this battle between citizens and corporations.  There have been many far more important moments in that struggle between those two often mutually exclusive nearly such categories of entities in this country.

In our era I can‘t think of one more important than the current one.  This will be the night we find out if Barack Obama works for the people or the corporations, simple as that. 

O‘DONNELL:  Rachel Maddow, how will you judge the success of this speech? 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR, “RACHEL MADDOW SHOW”:  I think that Keith is really onto something in terms of the overall ideological import of tonight‘s speech.

One of the things that we have seen over the late portion of the summer as things got really of cooky on the right in terms of the allegations coming from conservatives and from some Republican members of Congress who sort of egged them on is that we saw an emergence of a real vocal progressive minority within the Democratic Party; voices like Anthony Weiner, voices like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, getting louder and getting more and more articulate and starting to get a little more traction in terms of the number of people willing to hear from them.

Willing to hear a very strong progressive point of view from them that frankly the private insurance companies need to justify what it is that they do for us that we couldn‘t do better with a public plan.  The idea of a single payer is not necessarily a Beltway idea right now but it is becoming a progressive idea.

I think we‘ll see right now where the president thinks the center is.  I think we‘ve seen a big push from the left to put the center more back in where I think the center actually is instead of this sort of constant rightward drift that we‘ve seen over a generation in Washington especially on these domestic issues like health care. 

O‘DONNELL:  Keith, as you know, there‘s nothing like a personal interaction with the American health care system to start thinking quickly about what‘s wrong with it.  The president is going to use a lot of anecdotal examples tonight and cite people who are in this audience tonight who have had some very serious problems dealing with this system.

What else does he need to do?  What does he need to say to those who began this two years ago thinking that they would like to go forward for a Medicare for all type plan but have been willing to compromise themselves in the direction of the plans that have been passed in the House of Representatives that include a public option.  I would judge that those people have already compromised themselves halfway.

What does he need to say to them to keep them on board to whatever extent he wants to compromise some more? 

OLBERMANN:  He needs to say I won‘t sign a bill that doesn‘t have the public option in it as simple as that.  That would be the idealized version of it because the president is an expert on many things and it seems to me to be one of the few people you run into life where you realize that they can do their jobs a lot better than you can do your own job let alone the possibility of you doing their job.

However, if as you discussed if he‘s going to fill this up with anecdotes about people‘s experience with the health care system, everybody in this audience has one that‘s better or in this case worse than the one he‘s going tell.  We‘re all experts about this.  And if we‘re not experts and if you‘re watching at home and not an expert on the health care system, sooner rather than later you will become one and you will be horror struck by how much worse it was than it was last spring and how much worse it was than last year and how much worse it was than when you were a kid.

It‘s getting worse and worse and it‘s becoming more and more of a blood sucking—and I use that imagery deliberately, of wallets.  It‘s principally a hospital and one in which things are removed from you and the first one is your cash.  That‘s what our American health care system is right now and that‘s the issue that he has to address.  He has a choice.

It is, as Rachel suggests, a definition of some degree of his presidency.  Who does he work for?  The corporations or the people? 

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Thank you Keith.  We will see you at the top of the hour anchoring our coverage.  Rachel is staying with us as we await President Obama‘s speech to Congress coming up in just a few minute.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNNELL:  We‘re back with Rachel Maddow as we await President Obama‘s speech to Congress at the top of the hour.

Rachel, as I told you last week on your show when Bill Clinton waved his veto pen to this audience and threatened to veto anything that was not universal coverage as he defined it, Republicans didn‘t believe that he would do that.  Barack Obama‘s speech—the excerpts that have been leaked so far—do not seem anywhere near as strong as Bill Clinton‘s speech was.

What do you expect the audience to feel walking out of that room tonight?  Do you think Republicans are going to walk out of there thinking well, “Now we really better do business with this guy?”  Or Democrats are going to walk out of there thinking well, “Yes, he‘s going to be with us all the way on what we want to do here?” 

MADDOW:  I think that Republicans in Congress are really the only constituency in the entire country who the President is not talking to tonight.  I think that‘s one thing that we can expect.  He‘s going to be talking to Democratic members of Congress, I think, telling them that they are going—they should work with him to be part of something they can be proud of and something that they can campaign on and something they don‘t have to be sorry about.

I think that he‘s going to be talking to Republican constituents and Republican voters at home trying to perhaps drive a wedge between them and the members of Congress who represent those states and districts trying to say, “Listen, I know that you want health care reform even if your member of Congress or your senator doesn‘t want it.”

I think this is a speech in which he boxes out Republican members of Congress unless they‘re willing to work with what‘s going to be a Democratic plan. 

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re watching Nancy Pelosi doing some of the bookkeeping

to get this session started.  But Rachel, the absolutists on public option

no public option, no bill—are they really willing to sacrifice the entire bill over this one provision? 

MADDOW:  Yes.  I think they are. 

O‘DONNELL:  Take your time on answering that question, Rachel.  Think about it. 

MADDOW:  I mean, I don‘t think they‘re monolithic.  I don‘t they are -

I think they‘re not members of any organized party.  They‘re Democrats in the great words of something much smarter and wittier than I am.

I don‘t think you can talk about them as a totally unified block but I do think that there are people who feel like this is a bedrock principle and they‘re not going to won‘t vote for something that doesn‘t have the public option in it.

David Axelrod today saying he expects—telling you—he expects that there will be some form of public option in whatever the final bill is.  It sounds to me like the White House has received the message that liberals aren‘t going to budge on this. 

O‘DONNE:  Thanks for joining me tonight.

President Obama is about to address a joint session of Congress. 

Keith Olbermann is picking up our coverage starting now. 

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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