The White House Waffles on the Public Plan. Again.

The big story in Washington today is word that President Obama will try to reclaim momentum on health-care reform, beginning with a speech in the coming weeks that will lay out exactly what he wants in a bill. Possibly not included: the so-called public plan, which has proven to be the most divisive aspect of the debate so far. A government-run option has been the holy grail for many on the left, including the AFL-CIO, which announced yesterday that it wouldn’t support a bill without it. “It’s an absolute must,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said Tuesday. Well, that should make for an interesting conversation when Obama addresses the group’s national convention later this month. As Politico reports this morning, some Obama aides “welcome a showdown” with those on the left who argue they would rather have no health-care law than one marked by compromise. In their view, it would allow Obama to show he’s willing to stand up to Dems to get something done. “We have been saying all along that the most important part of this debate is not the public option, but rather ensuring choice and competition,” an aide said. “There are lots of different ways to get there.”

This is true—well, sort of. Your Gaggler would best describe the past few months at the White House as the Summer of the Hedge. It’s been all about the back and forth over what exactly Obama would do about the public option. Is a bill without it a deal breaker? It is not? And what exactly does Obama define as a public option anyway? We all know what Obama said during the campaign: he wanted some form of a government-sponsored health care. But what about now as president, when the reality of governing actually hits? The White House’s handling of this question has been murky, at best. And we’re not talking purely about what staff has said. We’re talking about Obama’s own statements.

In June, Obama was asked point-blank at a news conference if the public option was non-negotiable. At first, he dodged, but when called out by ABC’s Jake Tapper for not answering the question, Obama told reporters that he had not drawn a “line in the sand” over the point. But a little over two weeks later, Obama seemed to dial back remarks Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, made to The Wall Street Journal, in which Emanuel suggested that the White House could deal without a “pure government-run option.” “As I’ve said before…one of the best ways to bring down costs, provide more choices and assure quality is a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest,” Obama said in a statement released July 7. “I look forward to a final product that achieves these very important goals.”

On July 20, Obama reiterated his support for the public plan in an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer. “We’ve actually been very clear on what we want,” Obama said, when asked about suggestions that he hadn’t been specific enough about the bill he wanted. “I’ve been very clear about the fact we should have a public plan.” Pretty strong statement, no? But after Congress failed to reach a deal before recess, Obama seemed to dial back a bit. At an Aug. 15 town hall in Grand Junction, Colo., Obama vaguely suggested that a public plan might not make into the final bill. “The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health-care reform," Obama declared. "This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it." Okay. Wait, what?
So what will Obama say in coming weeks on health-care reform? The White House is still trying to figure that out. But the unnamed aide’s comments to Politico this morning are revealing. They're meant to re-establish Obama’s reputation as the compromiser, the “change” candidate who will rise above petty politics.That image has been dented in recent months, particularly among independent voters—a key voting bloc that helped Obama win in 2008 and whom he desperately needs to stay with him if he wants to continue tackling the ambitious agenda he has set out. A CNN poll out yesterday showed that Obama’s approval rating among independents dropped 10 points in the last month, from 53 percent to 43 percent—numbers that can’t be sitting well in a poll-conscious West Wing.

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