Obama signals a big hedge on the 'public option'

A pre-mortem on Obama's crucial speech to Congress on Wednesday.
A pre-mortem on Obama's crucial speech to Congress on Wednesday.

Building up to Wednesday's speech by President Barack Obama to the Congress, all kinds of late signs and portents were developing regarding the content of his health-reform plan.

In his Labor Day speech to an AFL-CIO gathering in Cincinnati, Obama made clear his general support for a "public option" — that is, establishment of a government-run plan to compete with private health insurers — in final legislation but left the door open to something less. Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said final House legislation had to contain a public option but then backed off a bit the following day. (All three bills clearing House committees contain a public option).

Early Tuesday the Concord Coalition, co-chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey, stated that any health-care plan could not deepen federal deficits and that its financing had to be spelled out. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget had made a similar statement earlier. Rep. Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's deputy in the House, followed Tuesday by praising the public option but stating that there was enough good in reform proposals, without a public option, that he would support them nonetheless. On the Senate side, Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, reportedly was preparing a legislative draft of his own suggesting a so-called trigger mechanism, which would activate a public or quasi-public option if after a few years private insurers were not suitably meeting public need.

Headed toward tomorrow's speech, Obama faces general Republican congressional opposition, Democratic House members polarized (between liberals and moderate Blue Dogs), and Democratic Senators generally favoring more incremental reforms than will be contained in any final House bill.

Best bet: Obama, as Hoyer, will say he favors comprehensive reform and "a public option" but that he will compromise as necessary to get a bill generally extending health-care coverage by insurers. His most difficult task tomorrow may be to convince both legislators and a national audience that ObamaCare will reduce rather than sharply increase rising federal deficits over the decade ahead. Broadcast time is 5 pm, Seattle time, Wednesday.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.