President Obama’s highly anticipated speech to Congress won’t be must-see TV just because of what he’ll say to lawmakers tonight. Equally, if not more important is the reception he’ll get from members of Congress, in particular the woman sitting directly over his left shoulder: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Who can forget how enthusiastic Pelosi was during Obama’s last speech to Congress in February, when she leapt up to offer applause so often that Gawker dubbed her “Pop-Up Pelosi.” Will she be as excited tonight? Probably not, as the White House has signaled that Obama won’t draw a line in the sand over the creation of a public insurance option in the health-care reform bill. Perhaps more than anyone on Capitol Hill, Pelosi has advocated for the public option. Should Obama signal he’d support a bill without it, it could prompt a major rift with a key Democrat who has frequently shown she doesn’t mind playing frenemy to the White House.
Pelosi has remained strongly in support of the public plan, even as the White House and other top Democrats have dialed back in recent days. When Obama aides hinted last week that their boss might push for a bill without the government-sponsored insurance plan he had advocated so strongly during the campaign, Pelosi promptly issued a statement pushing back. “A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House,” she said. But on Tuesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Pelosi’s No. 2, contradicted Pelosi, telling reporters that while he personally supported a public option, a reform bill without it would still be “very good.” “If the public option isn’t in there, I could still support a bill because I think there’s a lot in there that is good,” Hoyer said. Not long after, Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, told MSNBC that he could support a bill in which the public option would go into effect only if insurance companies didn’t meet a cost or coverage “trigger”—a move that Pelosi has long opposed.
Was it a sign that House Democrats were caving in the name of consensus? No way. Later that afternoon, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went before reporters after meeting at the White House with Obama. Asked about the public plan, Reid seemed wobbly on the specifics. “We’re going to do our very best to have a public option or something like a public option,” he said. But Pelosi didn’t budge. “I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House,” she told reporters, insisting that it would be the “best way to keep insurance companies honest.” Asked about Clyburn’s switch, Pelosi declined to comment.
We still don’t know exactly what Obama will say about the public option tonight. In an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Obama dodged the question when asked if he would reiterate support for a public plan. One thing is clear: Obama is trying to navigate some seriously tricky territory. The president has said he wants a bipartisan compromise, but the White House’s focus at the moment isn’t on Republicans as much as it is on efforts to keep the Democratic coalition from splintering. If there’s anything consistent about where Democrats stand, it’s that the party is as equally divided as the rest of the country on what to do about health-care reform. As a White House aide suggested last week, Obama stands to benefit politically if it looks like he’s standing up to liberal Democrats, but is dividing the party worth it heading into what looks to be an incredibly tough election year? In recent days, Obama’s aides have tried to reshape the debate over health care by suggesting the public plan is just a small part of the overall reform proposal and not the main event. Their argument: isn’t accomplishing something better than nothing? Presumably, Obama will repeat that sentiment tonight hoping to woo the support of the American people. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait for polling results or focus groups to gauge political reaction to the speech. Just keep an eye on the woman over Obama’s left shoulder.