Obama Will Hedge on Public Option

Prez will show flexibility on key issue of health plan

President Obama plans to give a strong endorsement of a public option – or government health-insurance plan – in his remarks to Congress on Wednesday night but will stop short of an ultimatum, leaving wiggle room for negotiation as the bill moves through Congress, according to sources familiar with his remarks.

In a speech meant to reset debate on the centerpiece of his first-term agenda, Obama can be expected to use language similar to his Labor Day remarks in Cincinnati, where he said: “I continue to believe that a public option within that basket of insurance choices will help improve quality and bring down costs."

Anxious to navigate treacherous divides in the Senate, the president will stop short of drawing a line in the sand, as many liberal House Democrats want. He will not demand that a public option must be in any reform bill he signs, the sources said. 

Reaching out to Republicans and independents, the president will acknowledge a problem with medical malpractice litigation, suggesting that topic can be included in the debate on an overall reform package.

Obama’s speech will kick off a series of high-profile White House health-care activities, including a presidential rally for health care Saturday in the Midwest.

At the speech, first lady Michelle Obama will be accompanied by ordinary Americans who have suffered from the high cost of health care. The president can be expected to reference some of them in his speech.

Acknowledging a flawed opening strategy, Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview aired on “Good Morning America”: “I, out of an effort to give Congress the ability to do their thing and not step on their toes, probably left too much ambiguity out there, which allowed then opponents of reform to come in and to fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense ….

“So, the intent of the speech .. is to … make sure that the American people are clear exactly what it is that we are proposing … to make sure that Democrats and Republicans understand that I'm open to new ideas, that we're not being rigid and ideological about this thing, but we do intend to get something done this year. And … to dispel some of the myths and, frankly, silliness that's been floating out there for quite some time.”

Aides say Obama thinks it would be hard to get to true choice and competition without a public option or a fallback to a public option — such as the so-called trigger, which would kick in based on the insurance market.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told NBC’s Meredith Vieira on “Today”: “There can be no reform without adequate choice and competition that allows people to be able to pick and have options. That’s certainly what he’ll say tonight. … The president will outline what he thinks the value of the public option is and why we have to have choice and competition.”

But White House officials privately say they know they don't have the votes in the Senate for a public option. It is clear Obama will gladly compromise on this point, hence the loose language in the speech, allowing for future horse trading.

In a break for the White House, the American Medical Association is endorsing Obama-style health reform, in an “Open Letter to President Obama and Members of Congress,” signed by President J. James Rohback, M.D.

“On behalf of America’s physicians and their patients, we strongly urge you to reach agreement this year on health system reforms,” Rohback writes. “[T]hose who are currently insured, including Medicare patients and those who are uninsured will all benefit from greater security and stability. … We reaffirm our commitment to work with each of you to adopt and implement health system reforms that will benefit all Americans.”

That could undermine Republicans’ plan to have their response, to be aired on all three networks, delivered by a physician. The GOP chose Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, a cardiothoracic surgeon, who said in a statement Tuesday: "As a doctor, I know we must lower costs and improve care, which we can accomplish by focusing on strengthening the doctor-patient relationship and working in a bipartisan way."

The top two Republican leaders -- Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. John Boehner of Ohio -- will hold an availability at lunchtime welcoming Obama to the Capitol.

McConnell said yesterday: “At this point, there really should be no doubt where the American people stand: the status quo is not acceptable, but neither are any of the proposals we’ve seen from the White House or Democrats in Congress.”

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director, said: “When the President is done tonight, everyone who listens will understand that his plan has at its core two overriding goals—to bring stability and security to Americans who have insurance today, and affordable coverage to those who don’t. And his plan will bring reforms that will reduce the unsustainable growth in the cost of health care, which has doubled in the last decade and will again, unless we act.”

The White House put on a full-court media press. Gibbs was on all the network and cable morning shows except “Good Morning America,” which had the Obama interview.

White House aides Valerie Jarrett, Melody Barnes, Anita Dunn and Linda Douglass are booked on cable throughout the day. White House senior adviser David Axelrod will tape interviews with the three network evening news anchors.

After the speech, Jarrett and Axelrod will return to the airwaves. And as part of the White House new-media strategy, Communications Director Anita Dunn will go on www.whitehouse.gov right afterward to engage with online viewers through a live video chat, responding to reactions and questions received via Facebook and Twitter.

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