MIXED SIGNALS?…. The irony is, when reporting on President Obama’s remarks last night, the New York Times described them as “his clearest plan yet to move forward with comprehensive health care legislation,” and “offered more clarity about how he plans to proceed” than at any point since the Massachusetts special election.

And yet, there’s considerable debate today about what, exactly, the president may have signaled.

Greg Sargent, for example, noted that Obama “at least raised the possibility” that health care reform would die on Capitol Hill. An Associated Press report interpreted the comments the same way. Jon Chait read the same transcript, and came away with a very different, more positive take.

If the remarks were the president’s “clearest plan yet,” that’s probably not a good sign.

So, let’s go ahead and roll the tape. Before the Q&A, President Obama delivered a speech about what’s transpired over the last year, and his vision for the coming year. He talked about how he and his allies are “going to keep fighting to fix a health system that too often works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people.” He acknowledged how difficult the challenge is, but said he “took it on” anyway because the dysfunctional status quo undermines too many families, businesses, and budgets.

“I got a note today from one of my staff — they forwarded it to me — from a woman in St. Louis who had been part of our campaign, very active, who had passed away from breast cancer. She didn’t have insurance. She couldn’t afford it, so she had put off having the kind of exams that she needed. And she had fought a tough battle for four years. All through the campaign she was fighting it, but finally she succumbed to it. And she insisted she’s going to be buried in an Obama t-shirt. (Laughter.)

“But think about this: She was fighting that whole time not just to get me elected, not even to get herself health insurance, but because she understood that there were others coming behind her who were going to find themselves in the same situation and she didn’t want somebody else going through that same thing. (Applause.) How can I say to her, ‘You know what? We’re giving up’? How can I say to her family, ‘This is too hard’? How can Democrats on the Hill say, ‘This is politically too risky’? How can Republicans on the Hill say, ‘We’re better off just blocking anything from happening’?

“That can’t be the message that the American people are delivering. Yes, they’re nervous, they’re anxious, they’re in a tough time right now. The thing they want most are jobs. They really don’t like the process in Washington, the sausage-making. That part I understand. But I know that they don’t — but I know they don’t want to just offer nothing to the millions of people in America who are in the situation that that woman was in. That’s what we campaigned on. And we are going to keep on working to get it done.”

So far, so good. The potentially problematic remarks came during the Q&A.

An OFA volunteer asked about “the strategy to move [health care reform] forward.” The president described this as “a good question,” and emphasized how close we are to getting this done — closer “than we have ever been.” Obama added that lawmakers in both chambers have been discussing how to “finalize a package.”

The president said “we know” several measures that “will be” in the final package, including bringing coverage to at least 30 million uninsured Americans, the creation of exchange, help for small businesses, sweeping new consumer protections, cost-cutting measures, and deficit reduction. He added:

“Now, those [House and Senate] bills weren’t identical, so it was important for folks in both the House and the Senate to sit down and figure out what’s the final bill that the Democrats believe in and want to move forward. The next step is what I announced at the State of the Union, which is to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas. What I’d like to do is have a meeting whereby I’m sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts, and let’s just go through these bills — their ideas, our ideas — let’s walk through them in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense.

“And then I think that we’ve got to go ahead and move forward on a vote. We’ve got to move forward on a vote. (Applause.) But as I said at the State of the Union, I think we should be very deliberate, take our time. We’re going to be moving a jobs package forward over the next several weeks; that’s the thing that’s most urgent right now in the minds of Americans all across the country. And that will allow everybody to get the real facts, both about the health care crisis that we face, why it’s so important for deficit reduction, why it’s so important for families all across the country. It allows us to see are there, in fact, some better ideas out there? […]

“But here’s the key, is to not let the moment slip away…. [T]here’s a lot of information out there that people understandably are concerned about. And that’s why I think it’s very important for us to have a methodical, open process over the next several weeks, and then let’s go ahead and make a decision. And it may be that — you know, if Congress decides — if Congress decides we’re not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not. And that’s how democracy works. There will be elections coming up and they’ll be able to make a determination and register their concerns one way or the other during election time.”

I’ve read this a few times, and I’m still not sure exactly what the president was proposing for the road ahead. But I think Chait’s interpretation is probably the right one.

The key is the beginning — Obama wants House and Senate Dems to work out a deal first. Indeed, he practically treats the compromise as a foregone conclusion, talking about it past tense (the competing versions “weren’t identical,” so it “was important” to work out the differences). With that deal in place, he wants a full airing/discussion of what’s in the final package, out in the open for everyone to see, giving Dems a chance to debunk the myths and knock down the caricature. From there, he expects both chambers to approve the compromise.

At least, that’s what I think he’s thinking.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.