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Thursday, Sep 3, 2009, 10:58 am

Daily Pulse: Goldfish and the Public Option

By Lindsay Beyerstein
Last night, 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: Yesterday, 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.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of Obama's hands off approach is that administration can't make a positive case for reform because nobody knows what it's going to look like. So, the president has decided to step in and dictate terms to Congress.

But White House officials admitted to Politico that they haven't actually decided what the president is going to say in his supposedly pivotal address.

The president is in a tough spot. If he's going to pass a bill, he has to placate the conservative Democrats in the Senate and the progressives in the House. As Brian Beutler notes at TPM, a critical mass of House progressives have threatened to vote against any bill that lacks a public option and Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns that she can't pass a bill without one.

The president has until Sep 9 to decide which side he's on.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care and is free to reprint. Visit Healthcare.newsladder.net for a complete list of articles on health care affordability, health care laws, and health care controversy. For the best progressive reporting on the Economy, and Immigration, check out Economy.Newsladder.net and Immigration.Newsladder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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