Obama won't go to the mat on public option

Sunday, September 13, 2009

By Jennifer Loven

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has never been wedded to a government-run health insurance plan.

The will-he-or-won't-he obsession over how hard Obama might fight to include the so-called public option in a health care reform package has been -- let's be honest -- mostly just noise.

Obama settled that Washington parlor game in his speech to Congress and a television-watching public Wednesday night. The president praised the public option but called it only a means to the end of providing more competition, not crucial on its own.

"We should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal," he said.

It was vintage Obama, the political realist who knows it's not worth going to the mat for something when the votes aren't going to be there. It was Obama the conciliator, using soaring rhetoric to try to get warring sides to come together around common sense. And it was Obama the ever-willing negotiator, unfazed by abandoning many specifics on the road to a larger goal.

But did he do enough to put to rest that one contentious issue -- which became so divisive in the larger debate over his drive to revamp the nation's health care system that it threatened to derail the entire effort?

The White House worked to assuage progressive activists, labor representatives and others most invested in a public option. Officials noted Obama would make a strong case on the idea's behalf.

Obama aides told liberal supporters there is a chance the climate might be more amenable to adding a public option in the later stages of the process.

In the days ahead, there will be grumbling from progressives, sure, some of it angry. Still, liberal lawmakers know the idea is largely dead.

Mark McClellan, a health policy expert at The Brookings Institution who ran Medicare in the Bush administration, said Obama hit it right.

"He made clear there is room for negotiation on the public plan, and I think that's where he needs to be in terms of keeping support from the Democratic caucus and leaving the door open for some Republicans," he said.

Conservatives, however, made immediately clear they don't plan to abandon one of their best arguments against Obama's approach anytime soon.

"Families understand that a costly government-run plan will force them to pay more and get less," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a statement released just minutes after Obama stopped talking.

Some of the recent suspense over Obama's stance, of course, is the result of genuine consternation among the idea's true believers.

To their way of thinking, creating a government-run health insurance plan as an option in a marketplace dominated, especially in certain regions of the country, by only one or two insurance companies would go a long way toward keeping private insurers honest and driving down costs.

Groups on the left have been demanding in increasingly desperate-sounding terms that a public option be in any final bill. Otherwise, liberal lawmakers say, they'll vote no on a reform package.

Really?

Hardly. The demands are about influencing Obama and their leadership. But the threats are largely empty -- and everyone knows it. Most liberal lawmakers are unlikely to deny a Democratic president his top priority, or their party a potent re-election tool.

On the other side, many conservatives genuinely believe a behemoth with government backing would be impossible for any private company to compete against.

The logical end result, they fear, is the dying off of private insurers and more and more Americans shoved into government-run health care until that's all that's left. This even though Obama insists the government would provide only startup money and that the plan would have to sustain itself afterward from premiums just like everybody else.

Like Democrats, Republicans have played politics with the issue.

Many seem poised to vote against any bill of major proportions that ends up making its way through Congress, given that it is likely to be mostly Democratic in origin. So their posturing about the evils of the public option is largely irrelevant, but an easy way to sow broader skepticism -- "a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles," as Obama put it.

Obama first endorsed the public option idea during the presidential campaign, after it was embraced by Democratic rival John Edwards and then the other powerhouse in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

And Obama kept talking about it since because there was little reason for him not to.

He continued to think the idea has great merit. And it made the liberal base of his party happy to hear him repeatedly lend it public support.

But there came a point when the debate veered so far off course that there was plenty of reason for Obama to stop the talk.

Yet he still played an unseemly game of cat-and-mouse.

Most public statements from Obama and his aides and top officials were coy on questions they already knew the answers to, so that Obama's liberal base could hear what they wanted to.

In scheduling Wednesday night's prime-time address, Obama realized that in order to reboot the discussion for the fall, he had to be clear about what he wants and doesn't -- on a public option and a range of other big issues.

And so, for once, he came clean on the issue.

Jennifer Loven has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2002. Associated Press writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this story.

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