Tonight, Barack Obama is giving what some pundits are calling the most critical address of his presidency. He will go before a joint session of Congress and make a final sales pitch for his as yet elusive vision of healthcare reform. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has promised that the speech will answer a wide array of concerns on the part of Americans, such as how the president’s proposal will ensure the security of their current insurance plans, protect Medicare coverage for seniors, and much more. With both the media and the American peoples’ expectations high, and the White House now validating those expectations, it is safe to say that if the president does not deliver tonight, not only will the public option wither on the vine, but Obama’s presidency may do the same. Clearly the president knows the stakes. He has three options, each of which carry equally dangerous consequences.
First, he can back off of the public option and instead endorse a co-op based plan, acquiescing to the political winds and positioning himself for success. This will lose him support among his liberal base and place him in direct opposition to key members of his own party in the House and Senate, who have sworn that they will not vote for healthcare reform without a public option. Democratic in-fighting will benefit Republicans, even if Obama eventually signs a co-op bill.
Second, the president can employ his famous rhetorical skill to restate his current position in a new way. That is to say, that he prefers the Congress pass a public option but will not say whether or not he will veto a bill without it. This is perhaps the safest route politically, as it keeps his options open and allows him to wait out the debate as he has been doing. Nevertheless, to do so would make him look weak and the effort would likely be transparent, demonstrating an inability to rise to the expectations his own White House has set. It would take incredible eloquence and double-speak, not to mention some media complicity, to pull such a tactic off. Of course, Obama has all three.
The third option would be for President Obama to “go big or go home,” in the parlance of our times. He could stand before Congress and the American people and declare unwavering commitment to the public option, throw his full support behind it and ask Congress to send a reform bill to him that includes it with all possible speed. This would energize his base and show strength and leadership. However, it pits him against public opinion, which has shifted seismically against a government-run option, and would force his party to use their majorities in both houses of Congress to ram the legislation through without significant bipartisan support, something they are loathe to do. Additionally, if the public option legislation should fail, Obama will be faced with a choice: signing a bill without the public option after committing to it, or vetoing it and risk sending healthcare reform into a downward spiral.
My instincts tell me, and this is just one man’s opinion, that President Obama will take the third and perhaps riskiest route. He will employ every political weapon in his considerable arsenal to arm-twist and coerce hesitant Democratic and even Republican legislators, and he will double his efforts on turning around public opinion with a new assault on public option critics. Indeed, he can do no less, as he is staking his presidency on this one issue alone. He will do whatever it takes to get Congress to pass a bill that he can claim as a political victory, because anything short of that would turn his already dwindling political capital to dust. He will suffer, I’m sure, from a negative reaction from the public should he sign such legislation into law, but I think that’s a risk he’s willing to take to stay alive politically. Make no mistake, it is a great risk: Democrats could stand to lose their majorities in one or both houses of Congress in 2010. But let’s not forget that President Obama believes strongly in the public option. It is more than a political battle, but one of ideology and doing what he believes is in the essential good of the nation, wrong as he may be.
Whether or not the president decides to “go big,” tonight’s address will be interesting to watch.