Illustration for article titled Obamas Russian Drive-By on the Public Health Plan

As anyone following the health care debate knows, the next several decades of interaction between patients, doctors, insurers, and the government are being hashed out furiously behind the scenes in Washington. In this volatile environment, the slightest hint of a weakness or a concession among congresspeople, or a new study on savings, is treated as a reason to start the argument from square one.


To wit: Early this week, rumors were flying that the president might not back a public option, which would place a government-run program in competition with private insurers in order to reduce costs and keep folks covered. This came on the heels of a WALL STREET JOURNAL article proclaiming, 'White House Open to Deal on Public Health Plan." The goods:

It is more important that health-care legislation inject stiff competition among insurance plans than it is for Congress to create a pure government-run option, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Monday. 'The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private insurers honest,' he said in an interview. 'The goal is non-negotiable; the path is' negotiable.


Is Rahm a problem? Remember, this is the adviser who, in a simlar show of bravado told the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE “The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable.” So he likes to use the line. But for progressives and economists who see no other real way of keeping profit-motivated insurers on their toes, the public option is, of course, the only non-negotiable principle.

However, if it wasn't clear that the president wanted a bill this year, right now—and not a halfway affair, but a real solution to the problem of soaring costs and uninsured millions—the skeptics got their answer this morning. The president released a short statement from several time zones away in Russia, designed to clean up Rahm's mess, and calm the progressives seeking a strong stick for insurance providers:

I am pleased by the progress we're making on health care reform and still believe, as I've said before, that one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices, and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest.  I look forward to a final product that achieves these very important goals.

The statement doesn't contain fire and brimstone. In fact, it is almost boring. But President Obama has steered clear of injecting himself directly into debate on a public option. And even here, he emphasizes the "goals" rather than the means. At least, in the context of a cowardly Congress, the shameless, furious lobbying to squash the reform effort, and backroom dealings about who is providing political cover for whom—not to mention the seismic changes Americans can expect as a result of this debate—the calm is pitch-perfect.


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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