Getting Gamed on the Public Option

Clear signs of what is being described as impending doom for the "public option" on the various health care bills pending in Congress  can best be found in the subtle switch of White House language on the health care debate.  What was once known as healthcare reform is now "health insurance reform."  Peep White House Communications Director Linda Douglass' email response in POLITICO:

Nothing has changed. The president has always said that what is essential is that health insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health insurance market. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals.


It's all in the language. I've noticed the change, carefully and cleverly inserted in the language of recent Presidential town halls, picket signs blazing "insurance reform," rather than the full blown "public option."  The NEW YORK TIMES reports the President not shying away from making that shift, either.

Mr. Obama himself sought to play down the significance of the public option at a town-hall-style meeting on Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo., when a university student challenged him on how private insurers could compete with the government. After strongly defending the public plan, the president suggested that he, too, viewed it as only a small piece of a broader initiative intended to control costs, expand coverage, protect consumers and make the delivery of health care more efficient.


There is a potentially dangerous risk on President Obama's sudden leftward shift, but the intent is clear. This is the Presidency obsessed with a long-term outlook, and passing a bill at any cost is only short-term worry. Obama's droopy poll numbers only reflect the here and now, but the perception of getting something passed provides long-term political cover. What this means: Americans concerned about the health care disaster may get something that looks enough like reform, but isn't. Of course, all this probably depends on how "reform" is defined in the first place—it's not like the White House pushed terms like "overhaul" or "restoration." This was never planned as reconstructive surgery; merely a nip and tuck.

And Obama rightly figures progressives in Congress will cool down as campaigning for the 2010 Congressional mid-terms approaches.

There's been much chattering about the White House strategy, and many pundits—driven by the hype of the "town hall" rage—assume the debate is really a debacle. Strategists on the left scratched heads with frustration, puzzled by the White House failure to carry out a "public option" movement through use of 2008 campaign tools. But could this have been the game all along—reforming insurance rather than reforming it all?

Traditional political conversation imposes top-down processing, especially when studying the colossal failure of the Clinton universal health package in 1993.  The White House then attempted to force feed it to both Congress and public, over-estimating the utility of bully pulpit. We see where that ended. The Obama model, more than likely rooted in those famed "community activist" roots, prefers the bottom-up approach. Ultimately, however, the White House only imposes deadlines (occasionally changing them). The real onus falls on nervous Members on recess, battling red-faced uber-citizens screaming into open mics…



Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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