The public option’s history, revisited

THE PUBLIC OPTION’S HISTORY, REVISITED…. President Obama sat down with the Washington Post‘s Scott Wilson on Tuesday, and reflected on the successes of 2009. The president pointed to accomplishments that “in a normal legislative year would be considered really big achievements” — Lily Ledbetter, hate-crimes expansion, S-CHIP, tobacco regulation, military procurement reform, new consumer credit-card protections, Sotomayor confirmation — before looking ahead to 2010.

But health care remains the central focus of Obama’s young presidency, and one of his comments to the WaPo has already rankled many.

In the interview, Obama vigorously defended the [health care reform] legislation, saying he is “not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved.”

“Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill,” Obama said. “Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill.”

In listing those priorities, he cited the 30 million uninsured Americans projected to receive coverage, estimated savings of more than $1 trillion over the next two decades, a “patients’ bill of rights on steroids,” and tax breaks to help small businesses pay for employee coverage.

Those elements are in the House and Senate versions of the legislation; their competing proposals will have to be reconciled in conference committee next year. The House bill includes a government-run insurance plan favored by progressive Democrats; the Senate version does not. “I didn’t campaign on the public option,” Obama said in the interview.

Now, any discussion that begins with “it depends on the meaning of the word ‘campaign,'” is bound to be pretty annoying. Sam Stein and Alex Koppelman ran thorough reports late yesterday on Obama’s record as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, and to make a long story short, Obama clearly endorsed the public option and included it as part of his larger policy agenda — the plan as published online specifically touted a “public health insurance option” — but it wasn’t an element he invested much time in before Election Day.

As Stein summarized, “An examination of approximately 200 newspaper articles from the campaign, as well as debate transcripts and public speeches shows that Obama spoke remarkably infrequently about creating a government-run insurance program.”

Indeed, for all the concerns that Obama should have pushed the measure more aggressively during this year’s congressional deliberations, it appears the president advocated on behalf of the public option far more after getting elected than before it.

The question, then, is why the president would now say that he “didn’t campaign on the public option.” I suspect it has something to do with wanting a clean win.

This president, like all presidents, wants historic achievements to look as impressive as possible. When health care reform is signed into law, the White House doesn’t want the first paragraph to read, “President Obama accomplished today what most modern presidents couldn’t deliver … but he didn’t get what he really wanted.” Obama, then, has an incentive to characterize the final product as a close reflection of what he requested all along.

Indeed, I imagine this has helped drive the president’s motivations for the last several months. Obama defended and promoted the public option for much of the year, but apparently concluded in the fall that there just weren’t 60 votes for the measure, and he lacked leverage over those who stood in the way. So, rather than investing energy and political capital in a provision that wasn’t going to overcome the procedural hurdles — there were “only” 56 Senate supporters for the public option, and because the chamber is farcical, that’s not enough — the president focused his efforts elsewhere.