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Commentary: Obama's speech a heavy lift

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Obama's speech to Congress on health care is risky
  • He says selling the plan with no firm idea of the cost will be tough
  • He says Obama must answer many questions from Americans
  • Rollins: Obama's policy goal should be: "Above all, do no harm"
By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Ed Rollins says Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress is a high-risk move.

Ed Rollins says Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress is a high-risk move.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The president is making a major address to the Congress and the country Wednesday night. This speech is high risk for him.

Selling a plan that is not completely developed and without accurate numbers of what it's going to cost ordinary Americans is not a surefire recipe for success.

This is not a campaign speech. The president does campaign speeches well and obviously they worked for him in the past. I am sure President Obama and his team have already found out that governing is a lot harder than campaigning. So this is speech should be about facts. Mr. President:

Leave out the emotion and the polarizing comments about how bad the insurance companies are and how doctors and hospitals are ripping us off.

You need to understand that you are speaking to a skeptical audience. Not just the members of the House and Senate sitting in front of you but the millions of Americans watching on television who are not sure "Obama Care" will benefit them in the long run.

By choosing to make this speech before a joint session of Congress, you are signaling that it is important. But that's no guarantee of success.

President Clinton made a similiar speech at a similar time in his presidency -- September 22, 1991 -- and it failed miserably. Health care reform was scrapped and his approval numbers continued to drop.

President Reagan was more successful in getting Congress to enact his economic plan in 1981 after a speech before them laying out his objectives clearly. But he was less successful in getting them to support his Central American policy after a speech to a joint sesson in April 1983.

The lesson from these past speeches is to make the message clear and be honest.

If you are asking for our time, answer our questions honestly and in language we can understand. After months of trying to sell unsuccessfully a concept of health care for all, just give us the facts, Mr. President. And you can start by answering these questions:

Why do we need this expensive new legislation? What are the costs? How does it get implemented? What is the impact on the 48 million Americans who now have Medicare (and the 30 million more who will be added in the next two decades) and don't want to lose their benefits or have them altered? And what is the impact on the 250 million Americans who do have health insurance, mostly supplied by employers?

Do Americans really need to have health insurance mandated to them or their employers? What is the impact on those employers who already are struggling to survive in a very difficult economic environment?

Do we need another entitlement program that will add trillions more to our debt that our children will be stuck with? Where do we get the doctors who are needed when millions more patients are added to the system? And why isn't tort reform, which could save billions in malpractice insurance costs, a part of this plan?

I hope we all have a better understanding of the issue by the time Obama finishes his speech. But that doesn't mean his solutions are what is needed.

We need changes in the way insurance companies do business. Doctors and hospitals need to be properly paid for their services. And we need to review the enormous cost -- and the debt burdens it creates -- of educating our brightest young people to become doctors or other providers.

Health care is not cheap and certainly can't be free. But when you are in that operating room or your loved one has had a heart attack or been diagnosed with cancer or your child is sick, you want the very best. America has had the very best.

I have never heard of many people living in Detroit racing across the border to get treated in the Canadian system. The reverse is certainly true. Mr. President as you lay out your far-reaching health care agenda remember the words of the Hippocratic Oath taken by young doctors swearing to ethically practice medicine: "Above all, do no harm."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.

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