In a move recognizing the sober facts of political reality, President Barack Obama, according to Politico, is shifting his strategy on health care reform, including not insisting on a public option. It will enrage his liberal base, who flew into a tizzy when HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius floated the idea of the public option as a non-essential portion of health care reform. The President and his advisors are gambling it’s a face-saving move that will endear him more to the political center, who has been abandoning him in droves, leading to a 45% Rasmussen approval rating and a 42% Zogby approval rating.
With the shift, Obama is making a politically savvy triangulation reminiscent of the Clinton era. The question will remain whether the hard left in the House and Senate, along with their activist support groups, will reluctantly go along or explode in anger. I don’t know which way that particular fight will go, as it seems the public option is the Holy Grail for many on the left, a non-negotiable and essential piece of health care legislation that for many, including Rep Barney Frank and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, is just a rest stop on the highway towards a single-payer system.
With this move, it may turn out that Pres. Obama will become the George W. Bush of the left – excoriated by his base for “selling out to the center” and failing to move many opposition hearts due to his previous stances. At this stage he lacks the deftness of Clinton to nimbly move policy positions without upsetting large portions of the American voting public.
As for the left, the President’s shift indicates that opposition to the public option is real and politically viable. It’s no fluke that the poll numbers for Obama and the Democrats have tanked as public opposition to the current health care reform bill hardened. It might serve as a wake-up call to the left that their precious public option might not be as widely loved as the national Democrat-skewed polls have led them to believe.
In terms of leadership, it still leaves the Congressional Democrats in a bind. Obama’s move, while shrewd for his own personal political fortunes, has left his party without a clear path of action. They can oppose him at their own peril in the eyes of the political center, or they can hold fast to their liberal base and risk a fight with not only the public but the White House as well.
Will the President’s resolve stand in the face of his own party? I can’t answer that, but I must acknowledge that this is by far the best move he could have made strategically. How this will affect the larger Congressional game is up to the Democrats in the House and Senate.