How Did Obama Get Caught Flat-footed?

by Jason Zengerle | August 19, 2009

A lot of the handwringing over Obama's bungling of health care reminds me of all the handwringing a year ago this time over his bungling of the campaign. In other words, I think it's overwrought if not completely wrong. But then I read an article like this one in today's WaPo and I start to wonder:

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. 

[snip]

"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."

I agree with this adviser that the public option is not the end-all be-all of health care legislation, but I'm shocked the White House didn't realize that, for a large segment of the left, it is. I mean, liberal health care advocates have been pushing the public plan as their number one priority ever since Obama took office. A few months ago I did some reporting for a story on how the left was falling out of love with Obama, but I never wrote the story--mainly because I discovered the left wasn't falling out of love with him. A big reason for their staying in love was, you guessed it, their belief that Obama would support the public plan.

Roger Hickey, the co-director of Campaign for America's Future, told me at the time:

Both the insurance industry and various other special interest groups are clearly objecting to the public insurance plan and they would prefer a plan that just throws money at the health care system so we're in a debate about how a health care plan out to be structured and we're concerned about that. But so far we have a feeling, strong indications, that the Obama people understand the value of keeping it in there. It's some of our friends in Congress who are a bit schizophrenic. [Emphasis added.]

In fact, the situation the White House is now complaining about--the left's singular focus on the public plan at the expense of other parts of health care reform--was evident to many people who followed the issue months ago. As one liberal health policy analyst told me back in April:

People spend a lot of time talking about the public plan. It's almost a religious issue to them, but there are a lot of issues in health care: What's an individual mandate look like? What does it mean to have affordable health insurance? But there's so much effort devoted to talking about the public plan. There are are lot of issues that are going to have to be looked at, and you just don't have the same level of discussion about those.

I'm just having a hard time understanding how, if I, as a reporter who doesn't spend a lot of time following health reform, knew about the left's infatuation with the public plan, the White House didn't.

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