Farewell, reform; hello, triangulation.

Here’s President Obama today:

Obama said the public option “has become a source of ideological contention between the left and right.” But, he added, “I didn’t campaign on the public option.”

And here’s what he said last year:

…the Obama plan will: (1) establish a new public insurance program available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP nor have access to insurance through their employers, as well as to small businesses that want to offer insurance to their employees.

In fact, here’s what his campaign website promised:

Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice.


Through the Exchange, any American will have the opportunity to enroll in the new public plan or an approved private plan… The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and meet the same standards for quality and efficiency.

As usual, Obama framed his triangulating as sensible centrism, pretending that he opposes the extremes of left and right alike. Why, then, did this eminently sensible, cool-headed, unflappable non-extremist prominently include support for a public option among his campaign promises? And why is this crackpot, extremist, highly unsensible public option favored by most Americans? In October:

Americans remain sharply divided about the overall packages moving closer to votes in Congress and President Obama’s leadership on the issue, reflecting the partisan battle that has raged for months over the administration’s top legislative priority. But sizable majorities back two key and controversial provisions: both the so-called public option and a new mandate that would require all Americans to carry health insurance.

Independents and senior citizens, two groups crucial to the debate, have warmed to the idea of a public option, and are particularly supportive if it would be administered by the states and limited to those without access to affordable private coverage.

That was two months ago. Where do things stand today, now that most Americans “mostly disapprove of” the neutered health care bill that just passed through the Senate? This way:

While voters oppose the health care plan, they back two options cut from the Senate bill, supporting 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of coverage by a government health insurance plan and backing 64 – 30 percent allowing younger people to buy into Medicare.

How to explain this disparity? Simple: A majority of Americans clearly understand that without a public option “to keep insurance companies honest,” as Nancy Pelosi herself put it, this “reform” bill is just another bailout, another massive government subsidy for big business. The difference is that insurance companies hold an even more terrifying power over ordinary Americans than do banks. It’s mildly awe-inspiring that, after a year of being told that a public health care option will bring about another Cultural Revolution, the majority of Americans remain level-headed about the issue.

What can Obama do now? Well, there is one thing he can do: He can wage a full-blooded political war to get the public option restored in committee, by urging Americans to put pressure on their senators to support it. A sustained outcry from the citizenry could conceivably put the fear of God into enough senators to restore it. But it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll do that. Both Howard Dean and Russell Feingold have put the blame for the public option’s disappearance from the bill on Obama, with Feingold declaring that “the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle.” And in politics, as Obama ought to know, not to support something is to effectively oppose it, just as not opposing something is effectively supporting it. As Arendt put it, politics isn’t the nursery.

President Obama may be a lot of things, but he’s no fighter. He’s made that eminently clear with his surrender to what might politely be called “politics as usual” on one issue after another. Guantanamo, habeas corpus rights, Afghanistan — on the one hand, there was what the citizens wanted, but on the other hand, there was what the Washington establishment and the money power wanted. Of course, he has again and again opted for the latter, usually with a long, eloquent, apologetic speech addressed to the former. Now he’s on the verge of sacrificing the well-being of every American for the sake of “politics as usual.” Ironically enough, that was the very thing every American who voted for him thought they were voting to kill.


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