Will the White House Cave on the Public Option?

Earlier this week, thousands of Americans attended vigils for healthcare reform sponsored by MoveOn.org. (Photos from the New York vigil here.) The president says that a public option isn't the most important part of health care reform, but it's a make-or-break issue for his liberal base.

The public option U.S. legislators are considering would be a government-administered health insurance plan, similar to the insurance currently available to federal employees. It could reduce health care costs in two main ways: i) competition with private insurance companies, ii) using the government’s massive purchasing power to negotiate better prices. Not everyone who supports competition is also in favor of driving a hard bargain on prices. A so-called "strong" public option might use both cost-cutting components.

An anonymous "senior official" told Politico that President Obama has no plans to insist on a public option when he outlines his vision for health care reform. Pundits reacted to the Politico piece as proof that the president had thrown the public option under the bus, but pundits have the short-term memories of goldfish.

We had this same discussion in the week of August 20th, and it wasn’t new then. Yesterday’s leak is in line with what the White House has been saying for weeks. "No plans to insist" means that the president likes the public option, but he won’t threaten to veto a bill that doesn’t include one. Obama has said repeatedly that he doesn’t consider the public option to be the most important component of health care reform.

Here’s what’s really new: On Tuesday, we learned that after months of hovering above the fray, President Obama will finally dive in to the specifics of the health care debate in a special address before Congress on Sept 9. This visit wasn’t necessarily supposed to happen. As Mike Lillis observes in the Washington Independent, Obama was initially regarded as a strategic genius for avoiding the Clinton-era "mistake" of getting bogged down in the details of the bill.

After a summer of trench warfare, four bills passed their respective committees and we're still waiting on a fifth. The fights have exposed a deep rift between the left and right wings of the Democratic Party and driven a wedge between Obama and his progressive base.

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