Obama retrenches on health care

President Obama retreated from a key tenet of his health-care reform platform by downplaying the significance of a “public option.”

What happened

President Obama retreated from a key tenet of his health-care reform platform this week, as Democrats sought to regroup in the face of raucous town hall protests and intensified Republican opposition. Both Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius downplayed the significance of a “public option”—a government-run insurance plan intended to restrain costs by competing with private insurers. Obama called the public option “just one sliver” of reform, while Sebelius said it was “not the essential element.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later denied that the comments signaled retreat, but alarmed House liberals warned the White House that they would not vote for health-care reform without such a provision. “There is strong support in the House for a public option,” said Speaker of the House

Nancy Pelosi.

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Democrats raised the possibility of passing legislation without Republican votes, as Republican opposition hardened even in the Senate Finance Committee, considered the last bastion of congressional bipartisanship. The panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, said for the first time that he would not back a plan unless it gained broad support from Republicans. The Senate panel also said it was removing from its health-reform measure language that called for Medicare coverage of voluntary counseling on end-of-life issues. That move came in the wake of claims by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and conservative pundits that the provision would create “death panels” that would result in euthanasia of senior citizens.

What the editorials said

“Compromise is the lifeblood of politics,” said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but in abandoning the public option, Obama is compromising away the essence of reform. Alternatives to the public option—including a still-amorphous plan to create government-sponsored health-care co-ops—won’t sufficiently check the abuses of insurance companies. And compromising with critics who are “very much invested in the dysfunctional status quo” certainly won’t yield a better health-care system.

For Obama, compromise is simply war by other means, said The Wall Street Journal. While “the public option has been sent to the death panel,” it appears that the “fallback is merely to pass the public option on the installment plan.” Obama’s ultimate goal is to create “the architecture for government-run health care.” If Democrats can’t do it in one blow with a public option, they’ll do it by using regulation to “centrally plan the insurance market.” The result, alas, would be the same.

What the columnists said

What happened to the “transformational president”? said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. The public option is just the latest key piece of reform to be fed to the wolves, following “fully universal coverage” and the “ability to negotiate prices with the drug companies.” With an electoral mandate and a Democratic majority in Congress, Obama ought to be controlling this debate, not retreating from it. “It’s true that politics is the art of the possible, but it’s also true that great leaders expand the scope of possibility.”

There’s just one small problem, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. In electing Obama, Americans never endorsed government-controlled health care. Obama may have been able to “bludgeon” special interests into cooperating, but he has now hit a wall of popular resentment. Americans know that a government-run insurance plan is a “proxy” for achieving a “socialized” system—and that’s something Americans simply do not want.

Actually, the prospects for passage of health-care reform—including the public option—have just improved, said Robert Creamer in Huffingtonpost.com. Why? Because Republicans have bailed on bipartisanship, leaving legislation entirely in the hands of Democrats. And Democrats understand that failing to enact reform would be devastating to the party’s election prospects in 2010 and beyond. They also understand that without a public option to fuel the passions of their base, “the forces for reform would likely be overwhelmed by the shock troops of the Right.” Health-care reform may look as if it’s on life support, but looks can be deceiving.

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