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Obama Still Playing It Cool on Health Care

5 years ago
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Throughout the tussle over health care reform, there's been a question about President Obama's leadership style. Has he been too passive? Did he miscalculate by handing the all-important legislative details to Congress, which has approval ratings much lower than his own? Should he have pressed more fiercely for the public option?

In the past few weeks, I have traveled a bit and have encountered Obama supporters -- including campaign donors with him from the get-go -- who have expressed frustration, disappointment or concern regarding Obama's handling of the health care fight. Put simply, they each expected to see him lead more forcefully on this front (using Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, as the muscle).

I've told these folks: I feel your letdown. But at the same time, I've said to them that Obama will ultimately be judged by the outcome of this political and policy battle. If there's a decent bill when the dust settles, the individual decisions he made along the way will no longer be second-guessed. Results are what matters. If the war in Iraq had gone well in 2003 and wrapped up in 2004, how many Americans would have cared about George W. Bush's false claims about WMDs?

Obama is far from the finish line on health care reform. But this week he may have moved a step closer, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announcing that the latest version of the Senate health care bill will include a public option, which Obama has supported. (A White House statement praised Reid for reviving this provision.) If Reid can pull off the feat of corralling 60 votes to thwart a Republican filibuster, Obama will end up with the credit for achieving health care reform with a check on the much-despised oligopolistic insurance industry. It won't be important that his aides had lobbied Reid not to include the public option. Politics ain't fair. (As of close-of-business on Tuesday, Sen. Joe Lieberman -- the cranky Democrat who's gone independent but who still is a member of the Democrats' 60-person caucus -- confusingly said he would not join with Republicans on a filibuster but would be willing to block the final vote on a package with a public option. Several moderate Democrats were non-committal about standing with Reid against a filibuster.)

Reid seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting, not Obama. Even now, it appears that Obama isn't helping him much regarding the public option. Here's an exchange from a briefing White House press secretary Robert Gibbs held with reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday:

Q: Hey, Robert, some of the moderates in the Senate -- moderate Democrats -- are really balking at the health care plan that Senator Reid announced. What's the president going to do to try to help him line up the support he'll need to get that through the Senate?

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously right now, I mean, the president is working to ensure we get this through. I don't -- I have not heard of any specific calls that the president has made, and obviously Senator Reid is working this through the caucus. But I'm sure we'll get involved in due time.

Get involved in due time? That's a bit weak. It certainly wasn't a signal that the president has Reid's back. So Obama is still playing it cool, allowing the guys and gals on Capitol Hill to take the point on this mission. But if the mission is accomplished, it will be Obama's achievement. And his people will love him for it.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
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