Looking for White House instructions

LOOKING FOR WHITE HOUSE INSTRUCTIONS…. Sam Stein reports this afternoon that many insiders on Capitol Hill believe the public option will fail unless the White House weighs in more forcefully. It’s consistent with everything I’ve been hearing lately, but I remain skeptical.

Democratic aides said that a “handful” of senators who are skeptical of a public plan likely could be persuaded if not to support it then at least to oppose a Republican filibuster, if the administration were to apply a bit more pressure — or even guidance.

“There is a clear sense that it would be helpful,” said one senior Democratic aide. “Throughout this entire debate the White House line has been ‘We will weigh in when it is necessary’…. Well now we need 60 votes. So if it’s not necessary now, then when will it be?”

“I think folks in general in Congress were looking to the president to clearly define his feeling on the issue,” another aide said. “And I don’t think he has done that on the public option from the get-go… With a lot of senators nervous because of elections or other political dynamics, it would be helpful for the president to send a strong signal that this is what he wants in the final bill.”

The frequency with which this comes up suggests it’s a widespread sentiment among pro-reform Democrats, both on the Hill and off. That said, I’m not at all sure it’s right.

At this point, there really shouldn’t be any lingering doubts surrounding President Obama’s support for a public option — he’s endorsed, promoted, and defended the idea repeatedly for months. The president talked up the idea, for example, in his joint-session speech. He’s also expressed his support for the idea in weekly addresses, media interviews, town-hall events, and speeches. Behind the scenes, away from the cameras, there’s additional evidence that Obama has personally reached out to skeptical lawmakers to urge them to support the public option.

The president has not issued a veto threat — in other words, he hasn’t said, “No public option, no signature” — but he hasn’t left much doubt about what he wants, either. My sense is the White House has laid out its priorities, and now expects legislators to legislate.

Indeed, wavering lawmakers are now well aware of some key truths: 1) the White House wants a public option; 2) the majority of Americans want a public option; and 3) the vast majority of congressional Democrats want a public option. It’s now up to Obama to “weigh in” and tell these dithering members, who are unmoved by these obvious and important details, exactly what to do?

I wish it were that easy, but let’s not forget, the president doesn’t exactly have a lot of leverage over center-right Democrats from solidly “red” states. It’s not like Obama can promise to campaign for Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana next year — the president is extremely unpopular there.

It’d be great if Obama, through sheer force of will, could pick up the phone and tell Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Conrad “how it’s going to be.” I’d be thrilled if Congress would pass a reform bill with a public option, simply because the president asked for one. But there seems to be quite a bit more to it than that.