Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The public option: On life support. Or not

Like a doctor looking for the right words with which to communicate a dire diagnosis, President Obama has been trying to tell the American people what others within his party and outside it have been more effectively saying for weeks now: the public option of the proposed Obama health-care reform plan is probably as dead as something can be without a toe tag on a body in the morgue.

Or maybe not, depending.

We should have seen this coming. The president cued us to a shift in position when he spoke Saturday at the town hall in Grand Junction, Colo.:

“The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it … is not the entirety of health-care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.”

Listen to what Kathleen Sebelius, his secretary of health and human services, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”: The public option “is not the essential element.

The italics are entirely mine, and there for a reason. It’s in these feints of the language, these rhetorical dances that the Obama administration seems to be letting people know that the most effective measure ensuring competition for Americans’ health-care services is off the table.

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Or maybe not. Even Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats can read polls. They can surely appreciate, if not agree with, the overwhelming majority of Americans who want a public option in the health reform bill.

The 12th annual Health Confidence Survey, sponsored by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and released in June, reveals just how out of step conservatives are on the public-option issue:

From the EBRI Web site: “Between 68 percent and 88 percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat support health reform ideas such as national health plans, a public plan option, guaranteed issue, expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, and employer and individual mandates, the survey finds.”

And a NBC News poll, released today, found that when the details of the Obama health-care plan were thoroughly explained to them, 53 percent of Americans agree it was a good idea (once they got past the conservative noise machine that’s tried to characterize the Obama plan as the work of the spawn of Satan).

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That should be good news for the President: The American people back him, in general, on the public option. What should be more concerning (in light of the weathervane shifts on the public option that recent Team Obama statements suggest) is today’s Rasmussen poll, whose results lock the administration into the public option it said it wanted all along.

From Rasmussen:

“Just 34% of voters nationwide support the health care reform plan proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats if the so-called “public option” is removed. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% oppose the plan if it doesn't include a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. …”

“Without the public option, just 50% of Democrats support the legislation. That’s down from 69% support measured a week ago.”

That in a snapshot nutshell is the dilemma facing the Obama administration: The American people are saying, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” The Obama administration needs to get its arms around that, too.

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There’s more at stake than a health-care system that’s been in guarded condition for decades. There’s more at stake than the elections in 2010, a vote that could dismantle the plans for achieving the administration’s agenda across the board.

What’s also at stake is the credibility of the president himself, and the public perception of his willingness to stand on the scaffold of principles he erected during the campaign. Back then, and certainly during the heady early months of the administration, the public option was more than a sliver of Obama’s health-care proposal; it was the centerpiece of that proposal.

Even taking into account the prevailing political wisdom — a candidate tacks to the left on the campaign trail, moving rightward as the likelihood of being elected increases — there comes a time to get behind the bedrock of a platform that got you elected, and stay there. There comes a time to dance with who brung you.

The public option is the partner Obama brought to the dance of national health-care reform; together, they’re the couple that much of this country supports. There’s no changing partners now.
Image credit: Obama: Samantha Appleton, The White House. Obama bottom: Still from AP video, possible pool origin.

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