One thing I don’t understand is why anyone would assume that President Obama would not want to enact most of the things he campaigned on in legislative language that closely adheres to his promises. There might be an exception here or there. I think Obama probably was pandering to anti-free trade sentiment during the Ohio primary, for example. So, he may have no intention of reopening the NAFTA agreement. But trade issues were not central to his campaign and they were not among the issues that motivated Obama to run for office. Health care was central. And he was careful to craft a plan that was pragmatic and had a chance of passing through the Senate and becoming law. It wasn’t a whole lot different from the plans that were advanced by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. All three of them were relying on the same small universe of advisers and all three of them knew, as senators and former senators, what could and could not be reasonably expected to pass. They each were criticized for not advancing more ambitious plans. But it was clear that none of them were willing to pander for votes on health care by promising something that they knew there was no way they could possibly deliver on once elected into office. That type of grandstanding was reserved for Dennis Kucinich.
Unfortunately, once Obama became president, the Republicans adopted a no-holds-barred oppositional stance on every piece of Obama’s agenda. And, without 60 reliable votes in the Democratic Senate caucus, it quickly became obvious that his health care plan, as envisioned, was going to be extremely hard to pass. Even after Al Franken was seated in July and Paul Kirk was seated in September, due to the infirmities of Robert Byrd, there has never been a point where the administration could be confident that they would have 60 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate to pass a health care bill. But that was only part of the problem. When it came to the public option, there were never more than about 55 reliable votes. At the committee level, the administration was able to pass their bill through four of the five committees with jurisdiction, but it was obvious back in January that the Senate Finance Committee didn’t have the votes.
So, the administration had to figure out how to keep the process moving. Bill Clinton’s health care bill had died in the Senate Finance Committee, and objective number one was to prevent a repeat of that catastrophe. Needing to win over at least one Republican and not being able to rely on at least five members of the Democratic caucus, there was not much choice but to entertain less ambitious plans for health care reform. But to suggest that it was the Obama administration, or Rahm Emanuel, who were responsible for these problems just never made any sense to me. The administration did nothing to discourage Nancy Pelosi from pursuing a robust public option, and even pressuring her most vulnerable members to get on board. Why would they do that if their goal was to water down their campaign promises?
But there is nothing that can be done if members like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson refuse to give Harry Reid the procedural votes he needs to pass a public option. If no Republicans can be moved, then that aspect of Obama’s health care plan must be abandoned or weakened with a trigger.
There has always been the fall-back position of using the budget reconciliation process and, notably, Obama insisted that that backup be put in place in the Spring. It could still happen. But there are big downsides to doing health care reform that way, and it won’t be resorted to lightly.
In any case, I find it absurd that anyone would seriously believe (or ask others to believe) that Obama has wanted to weaken the public option all along. In fact, I think that is just stupid.