Debate's Path Caught Obama by Surprise
Public Option Wasn't Intended as Major Focus
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.
Administration officials insisted that they have not shied away from their support for a public option to compete with private insurance companies, an idea they said Obama still prefers to see in a final bill.
But at a time when the president had hoped to be selling middle-class voters on how insurance reforms would benefit them, the White House instead finds itself mired in a Democratic Party feud over an issue it never intended to spotlight.
"I don't understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo," said a senior White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We've gotten to this point where health care on the left is determined by the breadth of the public option. I don't understand how that has become the measure of whether what we achieve is health-care reform."
"It's a mystifying thing," he added. "We're forgetting why we are in this."
Another top aide expressed chagrin that a single element in the president's sprawling health-care initiative has become a litmus test for whether the administration is serious about the issue.
"It took on a life of its own," he said.
In search of new momentum, Obama plans to discuss the matter Thursday with thousands of his most loyal supporters in a nationwide "strategy call" hosted by Organizing for America, a grass-roots arm of the Democratic National Committee.
He is likely to repeat what he and his top surrogates have said for months: that he will not "draw a line in the sand" about the inclusion of a public plan and that no one provision is a "deal breaker" as long as the final legislation embraces his broad principles for reform.
"That's what we said in June; that's what we've said in July; that's what we've said," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday.
Anger about an optional government-sponsored insurance program has been simmering for months, but the flare-up has created legislative and communications challenges for the White House at a critical point in Obama's push for reform.
Polls suggest that support is dwindling for widespread changes to the health-care system, and Democratic lawmakers have begun second-guessing the bipartisan strategy advocated by Obama and being pursued in the Senate Finance Committee.