Obama lays it all on the line tonight

President Barack Obama faces a major leadership test Wednesday in a crucial address to Congress designed to convince Americans to back his battered health care reform plan.

Obama is seeking to restore his diminished authority after weeks of shrill Republican attacks and with his approval ratings tumbling is under intense pressure to lay out clear plans on his top domestic priority.

The speech to a joint session of Congress will offer "a lot of clarity about what I think is the best way to move forward," Obama told ABC television in an interview to be broadcast Wednesday.

"I think what the country is going to know is exactly what I think will solve our health care crisis," Obama said on the eve of the nationally televised address scheduled for 8:00 pm (OOOO GMT).

With the young president’s political brand under strain, the outcome of this struggle could shape the rest of his administration.

Failure could severely hamper his chances of building a political coalition to pass an ambitious agenda including landmark global warming legislation — especially with mid-term congressional elections looming next year.

He also needs maximum political leverage for his effort to restore the crippled US economy, and on tough foreign policy questions, including the possible dispatch of more troops to the increasingly unpopular Afghan war.

But if he succeeds in passing health care reform, and providing coverage to 46 million uninsured Americans, Obama will be able to lay claim to an achievement that has confounded reforming US presidents for generations.

As Obama worked on his speech, expected to last around 35 minutes, a frenzied behind-the-scenes effort to dictate the endgame of the healthcare showdown intensified on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell sent a new signal that White House hopes for a bipartisan healthcare bill may be in vain.

"The White House has attempted to retool its message on healthcare many times. It should be clear by now that the problem isn’t the sales pitch. The problem is what they’re selling.

"The American people are asking us to start over."

The White House categorically rejected that suggestion, arguing that work on providing health coverage to all Americans had been going on for generations and had never been so close to fruition.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal ahead of Obama’s address, one-time Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, now a conservative darling, maintained that a government system would include "death panels," a line of attack that has been derided by the White House as misleading.

Obama meanwhile met key Democratic power brokers, House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, as Congress returned from an explosive recess consumed by Republican attacks.

Pelosi insisted that the creation of a government-run insurance company to compete with private health care providers — the "public option" beloved of grass roots Democrats — was vital to passing a bill in the House.

House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer admitted at a press conference with Pelosi however he was "not one of those that says ‘if you don’t have a public option, it’s not a good bill.’

"I think it’s a very good bill, I think the public option makes it much better," he said.

With Republicans slamming the plan as evidence the government is plotting to take over the system and introduce a European-style health service, chances of passing the "public option" in the Senate appear doubtful at best.

Obama is expected to argue in favor of the government entity to compete with private insurers to help Americans who have no health coverage. But the White House has declined to say whether he would threaten to veto legislation that did not have such an option.

Flaming debate during August, which has seen lawmakers assailed by angry voters at town hall meetings, has contributed to a slump in Obama’s political authority.

The president’s latest Gallup approval ratings stood at 51 percent on Tuesday, barely up from a low of 50 percent but down from a high of 69 percent in the euphoric early days of his presidency in February.