Obama and the Public Option

Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn both report that the Senate leadership is getting a little annoyed with President Obama regarding his support for various flavors of the public option.  They want to know exactly where he stands, and he’s not telling them.  Ezra:

If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they’re uncomfortable with Reid’s decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody…..Since the administration is considered the most important actor here, no one knows quite how to structure their strategy so long as the White House refuses to fully show its cards.

And Jon:

Supporters of the public plan have made headway by seizing on a proposed compromise first introduced by Delaware Senator Tom Carper — a proposal under which the federal government would create some sort of national public plan, but still allow states to opt out of it….But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid briefed the president at the White House on Wednesday, Obama responded with a series of tough questions — not rejecting the idea, but not rushing to embrace it, either. When word of that meeting leaked out, public option supporters took Obama’s reaction to mean that the administration continued to prefer the “trigger” compromise, under which a failure by private insurers to deliver affordable coverage would trigger the creation of a public plan.

I think this is a case where my sympathies may be more with Obama than with the Senate leadership.  My guess is that Obama (a) supports a strong public option but (b) doesn’t really care about it that much.  Like it or not, that’s just the way he feels: he’ll support anything that Reid can deliver 60 votes for.  So if Reid tells him flatly that he thinks he can pass opt-out, but he needs a full-court press on, say, Nelson and Lincoln, I’ll bet that Obama would be on board as long as his own staff agreed with Reid’s assessment.

But is Reid telling him anything that clear cut?  Nobody knows for sure, but I’m sure not getting that impression, and no president is going to lay the full power of the Oval Office on the line without that.  This is hardly something unique to the Obama presidency.

Bottom line: everyone’s getting frustrated, but this is just a very tricky issue.  It’s literally something where one or two senators can make or break it, and Obama might or might not have the leverage to get them on his side.  Either way, though, it strikes me that Reid needs to deliver a very clear message on whip counts, who the holdouts are, and possible bribes to get them in line.  He’s really the key player here, not Obama.

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