There’s one simple reason why the White House has rushed so aggressively to try to knock down the story that Barack Obama is backing away from his support of a public option for health care: if he does retreat on the issue, he risks trashing the political viability of his entire presidency.
Over the weekend, both Obama and Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, made weasly comments about the administration’s commitment to a public option policy that led even some of the president’s staunchest supporters to denounce his waffling.
Having raised the specter of ignominious political surrender himself, Obama sent press secretary Roberts Gibbs into the White House briefing room to – wait for it – blame the media – for manufacturing a story. He insisted that the president’s position has not changed on the most crucial issue in the reform debate, namely to provide a system of medical care for the uninsured and underinsured as an affordable alternative to the private insurance industry.
The public option flap is just the latest evidence of how Obama and his posse, after running one of the most consistent and effective campaigns in history, have badly botched the communications strategy and framing tactics in the battle over a defining issue of his presidency, undercutting in the process fundamental elements of the message of change that got him elected.
Beyond a shameful retreat on a substantive policy matter, hoisting the white flag on a public option would put Obama at odds with the congressional leaders and liberals who have been his most enthusiastic supporters and, more broadly, signal weakness and failure in fulfilling three of the basic premises of his message of change:
Special interests – As a candidate, Obama vowed to fight powerful and entrenched interest groups whose influence and money routinely cripple reform and determine the fate of legislation in Washington. Just eight months into his term, Obama is causing concern among allies who back the public option (as a less attractive alternative to their true preference for a single payer health care system) that he is preparing to cave in to insurance companies, after earlier cutting a deal with the pharmaceutical industry, another Beltway blue chip special interest.
New politics – While often ill-defined, Obama’s “yes we can” campaign message had two fundamental carrot and stick elements: a goody-two-shoes call for the bipartisan putting aside of status-quo politics and ideological polarization, coupled with a strong, clear and consistent attack on failed Republican economic policies that worshiped markets and business interests. In the political fight of his life, Obama has been putting his energy and emphasis almost exclusively on the can’t-we-all-just-get along aspect of his message, in a desperate bid to pass a bill – any bill – that he can spin as an alleged victory, even if represents right-center policies and politics.
With Democrats in the rare position of controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, however, he needs to stop singing kumbaya and start busting some heads by fighting fiercely for the populist – and, yes, partisan – principles that led millions to support the progressive promises of his campaign. And that means taking on, not just the other party, but some of the obstructionist Senators in his own party like Kent Conrad and Max Baucus, a couple of self-important narcissists who each represent a no-account state with about 12 people that Obama’s never going to win anyway.
Authenticity – Candidate Obama decried sound bite politics, repeatedly vowing he would tell Americans the truth, even if it was unpleasant, contrasting the integrity of his outsider stance with the Beltway insider images of rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Now, instead of giving hell to the special interests and right-wingers in Congress, President Obama too often passively abides their lies and demagoguery while resorting to Clintonian hair-splitting and legalisms in trying to finesse his position on the public option.
If he succumbs on this issue, the disillusionment and dismay among his own supporters that would accompany a retreat could not only fatally weaken him on Capitol Hill, but also put the issue of his re-election very much in play.
And if there’s any question that Obama himself – and not the media – set off the firestorm on public option, check out Jon Stewart’s take, characteristically complete with the most telling video clips.
Health reform resuscitations: Nate Silver has a smart post on a post-public option political landscape while Victoria Colliver of the Chronicle has a good Q&A primer on health care reform here and the Times offers a useful glossary for following the debate here.