Jake Tapper, Mensch

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 7:25 AM EDT

Kevin's gone for a few days. He says he's in NYC, but I wonder if he's off hiking with South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford. During this brief sabbatical, I will be filling in. Feel free to let me know how you think I'm doing in the comments section. By the way, I should let you know this: I'm allergic to cats. -- David Corn

An event happened yesterday at the White House that warrants notice and a hat tip to Jake Tapper of ABC News.

I know, bloggers are usually supposed to hold MSMers in disdain—especially White House correspondents. But during the presidential press conference, Tapper did what few White House reporters do: when President Barack Obama didn't answer another reporter's question, Tapper held him accountable.

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This notable exchange began when USA Today's David Jackson asked Obama about the public plan option in the health care bill now under construction in Congress:

This public plan, is this non-negotiable? Would you sign a health care bill without it?

Obama replied as he often does: "Let's talk first of all about health care reform more broadly." He proceeded to speak eloquently—no surprise there—about the problems with the health care system, particularly rising costs. He noted that the public plan is an "important tool to discipline insurance companies." And he countered the argument made by critics that a public plan would drive private insurers out of business. (Some people might shout hooray about such a dislocation.) But Obama didn't answer the question: would he place his John Hancock on health care legislation that did not include a public option?

Jackson valiantly tried to press this issue. But Obama ignored him and moved on to the next questioner. A few minutes later, it was Tapper's turn, and he said,

Before I ask my question, I'm wondering if you could actually answer David's. Is the public plan non-negotiable?

Obama shot back, "That's your question." The journalists packed into the briefing room laughed. Tapper, though, held his ground and noted that Obama had not truly addressed Jackson's query. He put aside whatever question he had cooked up and pushed Obama for a response. The president remarked:

In answer to David's question, which you co-opted, we are still early in this process, so we have not drawn lines in the sand other than that reform has to control costs and that it has to provide relief to people who don't have health insurance or are underinsured. Those are the broad parameters that we've discussed.

The message was clear: for Obama, the public plan is not a make-or-break provision. It's possible the president will support legislation that leaves it out. This was somewhat newsy. Obama's reply showed advocates of a public option where they stand with the president, who, to be fair, remains a vigorous advocate of a public option.

Too often in the White House press room, reporters work separately, rather than jointly. This allows presidents and press secretaries to slip past questions they don't want to address directly. In this instance, Obama had evaded an important query from Jackson. But when Tapper confronted Obama on this point, the president had a tough time dodging further. (In a similar situation, Bush probably would have continued ducking.) So credit to Tapper for being a team player—and, I suppose, to Obama for being honest about his commitment to a public option. He signaled to advocates that they are going to have to fight like hell for it.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter. He also has a personal blog at www.davidcorn.com.