The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim are reporting that President Obama is now actively opposing the idea of a public option with an "opt-out" provision, favoring instead the idea of a public option with a "trigger," because the latter would more likely attract the support of at least one Republican in the Senate, as well as provide political cover for more conservative Democrats. Because the story relies on anonymous sources, it is hard to assess its accuracy. Perhaps it reflects the fears of some administration insiders; perhaps it reflects actual administration strategy. Who can say for sure at this point?
More than this kind of rumor-mongering, however, what I object to is the tone of Stein and Grim's piece, which follows the Huffington Post's sometimes alarmist portrayal of the Obama administration. The idea that the White House is "leaderless" because its position may at the moment appear more centrist than the evolving position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is said to favor a stronger version of the public option, seems to reflect more dismay that the President may not be advocating the version of the bill that the Huffington Post writers support, rather than a fair assessment of whether the President is acting as a leader.
More charitable interpretations should be considered. If the White House has arrived at a different calculation of the possibility of passing a health insurance bill with a strong public option in it than has the Senate leadership, that does not make the White House leaderless. That could merely mean that different people are counting the votes differently. Or it could mean, as suggested in the article itself, that the White House is concerned about protecting the seats of certain Democratic Senators in future elections That strikes me as a legitimate concern. Harry Reid right now only has to worry about passing this bill, and getting himself re-elected. The White House has a longer time horizon than the passage of this particular bill, important as it is. Preservation of a working majority in Congress is certainly important to future administration initiatives. Even if the White House were favoring a slightly more conservative version of health care reform for substantive as opposed to merely political reasons, that still would not make it "leaderless." The president is supposed to consider a much broader constituency than any individual Senator or Congressman, namely the entire country. So if the President positions himself to the right of Harry Reid on this particular issue at this particular time, that might be not only politically smart, it might also serve his broader constituency as well as Harry Reid is serving his.
Stein and Grim's statement that the President's current position "runs counter to the letter and the spirit of Obama's presidential campaign" is just flat-out false. During the campaign, the debate was about individual mandates and about health insurance affordability. The idea of a public option was barely mentioned. People should remember that the public option, which I happen to think is a good idea for a lot of reasons, and which the President has repeatedly supported, was never intended to be the centerpiece of health insurance reform, and only makes sense in the context of other necessary reforms: cost controls, subsidies, and regulation to attain near-universal coverage, to take just a few examples. So while supporters of the public option should be cheered that the debate has moved as far as it has toward the embrace of that position, they should not view the public option as a litmus test. Many other important pieces of the puzzle need to be put into place. There are also a few more steps in the legislative process to go before a final bill is enacted.
So as usual, my pitch to critics on the left is to give the President a break, and stop being so quick to cry betrayal. I believe his team is already looking ahead to the end game and beyond, while critics may be unduly worried about an interim step in a long process.
Sunday night update: According to the White House, the rumors reported in the Huffington Post article and elsewhere are "absolutely false." (White House blog) So the White House at least officially says that they and the Senate leadership are all on the same page.