Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Yes, Obama did campaign on the public option


Oy. I'll defend the argument that the health-care bill that looks likely to pass is structurally similar to the health-care proposal released by the Obama campaign. But it's impossible to defend Obama's statement that "I didn't campaign on the public option." For one thing, it was in his campaign plan, which is to say, he campaigned on it. The proposal (pdf) assured voters that Obama's plan will "establish a new public insurance program available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP nor have access to insurance through their employers."

The White House argues that they didn't emphasize it in public speeches, and according to Salon's Alex Koppelmann, that's true. But speaking as someone who did a lot of reporting on their health-care plan, they emphasized it privately quite a bit. It was, in fact, their answer to a lot of the other flaws in their proposal. So whether Obama used it in his speeches, his campaign purposefully pushed it to, at the least, some reporters, which is to say they worked to ensure that people knew about the public option's important role in their health-care thinking.

Obama's latest statement on this is hair-splitting at best and misleading at worst. That's even more true given how often he mentioned the public option after he got elected. And it's a good example of why the left is losing its trust in Obama. Obama could have given an interview where he expressed frustration that the math of the Senate forced his administration to give up the public option but nevertheless argued that the rest of the health-care bill was well worth passing. Instead, he's arguing that he never cared about the public option anyway, which is just confirming liberal suspicions that they lost that battle because the president was never really on their side.

Photo credit: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 23, 2009; 11:34 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Letters to health-care Santa: Let Ron Wyden fix the exchanges!
Next: Lunch break


It is what it always was. From the beginning, he positioned the public option as his one big bargaining chip. He tried for months to find someone to trade it to for something before finally trading it for Lieberman.

As I recall, every time he voiced support, proxies then fanned out to emphasize that it wasn't essential, if we could get other things by giving it up.

The thing that disappoints me the most is how dishonest this guy has turned out to be.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 23, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I'm with pj. I understand he had to get something passed or be castrated for the rest of his term. But why be so dishonest? Why be so antagonistic to the left, the people who will determine 2010?

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 23, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Is there a transcript of his Oval Office interview available? I'd like to see what he said before and after the quote in question.

Posted by: map518 | December 23, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Note to the President:

If you don't dance with the one who brung you, you'll end up going home alone.

Posted by: AxelDC | December 23, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I don't generally think he has an honesty problem with the American people (notwithstanding this dumb public option comment). I think his honesty problem is with himself. He can't believe that people don't like him and that the right considers him spawn of Stalin.

It'd be nice if he cared half as much about good policy as he does about making everybody happy. The way to make the most people happy, in the long run at least, is to push and pass effective policy. Even assuming Ezra's right that there's not much O. could have done differently to twist arms or force Senate action, the White House has the biggest soap box in the land. O. should learn to stand on it rather than allow the "death panel" people to hog the microphone for three months of summer.

But that's just MY armchair psychology.

Posted by: pbasso_khan | December 23, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

urgent memo to firedoglake, Kos, Klein and others: Out of the office due to snow. That doesn't mean ya'll get to wander off the reservation. I'm sure Klein will walk back from even the most timid suggestion that the prez said something "misleading" -- just don't go further, don't go there. You feel me? R.E.

Posted by: truck1 | December 23, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Yes, President Kucinich would surely have convinced Lieberman, Baucus, Conrad, Nelson, Lincoln, Landrieu, and Bayh to support the public option.

He would have done so by stridently demanding that it be put in the bill OR ELSE, and then publicly demonizing all opponents as cowards and corporate-shills.

Someday (we can only hope & pray) President Obama will discover your brand of political wisdom, and pass REAL progressive reform.

Posted by: AgnesBee | December 23, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Klein, this is more of the "klein-klein" analysis and best characterised by your own comment: "hair-splitting at best". The contents of the health care bill, as you know ("misleading at worst"), is determined by the Congress and that goes for the "public option" or lack thereof. Such is the nature of compromise to get any legislation through a recalcitrant and fearful Senate.

But I suppose you'd lose your job as journalist if you couldn't ignore the facts and wallow in the personal opinions.

CB in Hamburg

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | December 23, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I guess I should expand on this.

Obama's tendency to be dishonest has not appeared for the first time only here. He made a secret deal with big Pharma after promising that he would only ever conduct business transparently, in public. He backtracked on domestic espionage, and the application of constitutional restriction on the power of the president. There are more, but these examples will do.

In each case, he has tried to sell the story that he never said that at all, and this is what bothers me. It is ok to changes one's mind. In fact, I expect that in a leader. Insistence on rigid consistency also bothers me a lot. People should learn, and that implies their ideas should change.

But then they should acknowledge that and explain it, not just claim that they never said that in the first place. Learning is a sign of a wise leader, but pretending it was what you said all along is the sign of a fool.

Obama seems to be embarrassed by having to change his mind, and that is foolish.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 23, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Ezra...I recall Obama always saying he preferred a public option but it was not essential, and you admit yourself that they played it down. I think the exchange idea that is in the bill is a much more politically sound way to go. There were really a lot of questions about how feasible a public option was, who would run it, how it would be paid for. I am disappointed that the Medicare expansion did not go through (thanks Joe Lieberman), but to suggest this bill is "window dressing" is BS. And it's a start. I am a true blue Liberal who still supports the efforts of our President. I wouldn't listen to PUMAs such a Jane Hamsher, as reflective of most Democrats. Last poll I saw had Obama's approval ratings twice as high as GWBs. He still has great support.

Posted by: RobRoy1 | December 23, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, good to point out this and glad that you still bat 'straight'.

There is little of humility missing here on President's part. He is doing more of 'mission accomplished', 'Iraq is the front of terror war' and 'we fight Al Qeda in Iraq so that they do not attack us at home' kind of stuff. It is all heady in President Obama's head. I guess something happens with White House - an occupant of it becomes this 'head strong, arrogant and dishonest person' with no trace of humility.

Let us start:
1. Stimulus package - it worked, but it is time for him to acknowledge that WH was way too aggressive in their assumptions and they should have listened to many other outside experts in being more down to the earth; especially while selling that package to Americans.
2. Obama could have said that HCR could have waited in this Great Recession but he still wanted to pursue for (fill in the blanks) reasons. However, he needs to acknowledge that it took more time than what he thought and that kind of eaten up time in focusing on Economy.
3. PO, he did support and he did want it. He is on record, but he needs to say simply that it is sacrificed for now so that overall the bill moves forward.
4. Iran - diplomacy has not worked and there are no chances that it would work. Task is cut out in terms what needs to be done.
5. Israel does not see merit, for wrong reasons, in American position of stopping settlements and hence we are stuck.

These are all solid blockages President Obama has encountered in his first year and he better be upfront and honest about those.

Otherwise, another most important reason why Public backed Obama - absence of foolish arrogance of Bush Presidency - will very much whittle away.

Remember, it is our this Camelot who said he expected people to hold him accountable. President, time of deliverance is here.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 23, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

As a pretty ardent hcr bill defender, I nevertheless agree that this was a pretty crappy thing for Obama to do. And I also agree with pj that the pattern developing of obfuscation he's showing is disconcerting. There's no way in hell I'm voting Republican any time soon, but I don't much like this part of the way Obama's done business.

Posted by: Chris_O | December 23, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

memo to firedoglake, Klein, Got my head straight after talking to D.A. and he said a little show of intellectual independence is good. People were beginning to perceive some of you (E.K.) as just tools of the white house. But only show a little ankle, you know what I mean? "Mislead" okay -- "dishonest" not. "lying" -- well, that's gonna get you and yours right onto the public health plan, you feel me? R.E.

Posted by: truck1 | December 23, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"Obama could have given an interview where he expressed frustration that the math of the Senate forced his administration to give up the public option [...] Instead, he's arguing that he never cared about the public option anyway"

Nail. Head. It seems he's calculated that it's still more important to be perceived as pissing on progressives than to be seen as working with them. Can't wait to see the last minute fig leaf he will undoubtedly extend next year.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | December 23, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Why does Obama make these stupid remarks and denials of fact? Part of what was refreshing about Obama or what once was the idea of Obama was the belief that he stuck with facts and reality. It does remain both quite refreshing and relieving to have someone so much improved from the last president. However, statements like this call to mind much of the frustration and other feelings associated with the worst failings and crimes of the previous administration. President Obama would do well to avoid these associations and costs, particularly when they serve no purpose and the truth is benign if not helpful as in this situation.

Posted by: bcbulger | December 23, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Heh, less than the Mayo Clinic was referring to exchanges run like the FEHBP as a "public option" quite recently.

That's reasonable.

So, we will have a sort of public option, according to the usage (September) of the Mayo Clinic.

This came to light when I noticed Sen. Rockefeller and Wyden, and one said Mayo supported a Public Option (at that heady time), and I wondered just *exactly* what Mayo supported, and dug it up with some precision.

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 23, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Re my post just above.

Various bloggers have done considerable damage to the Democratic Party by over-emphasizing the "public option" of a certain variety.

They may have cost the Democratic party a few percentage points of electorate showing up at the polls in 2010.

Bloggers, was it worth it?

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 23, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

The title of the comment by Ezra Klein "Yes you did etc." is down right childish and really besides the point. Legislation is shaped and determined by the legislature.

P.S. for those who don't know: "klein" is German for "little", and "klein-klein" is by extension pettiness.

CB in Hamburg

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | December 23, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. As a person who followed his campaign closely, and volunteered for him in a number of states, it's absolutely false for him to say he didn't campaign on a public plan. He did. He absolutely did.

I support passing this legislation even without the public option, but it pisses me off that Obama is pretending he never campaigned on it. Apparently the appearance of a 100% victory is more important than the truth.

Posted by: evietoo | December 23, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Well, as Joe Wilson said, "You lie!"

Trying to say he didn't campaign on the public option is crap, and my first big disappointment with this president.

Grown-ups understand that aspirations run up against realities, especially in Washington, and especially when you're trying something big. Obama could easily have responded with words to that effect, and we'd all have accepted that, leaving only the far left to grumble -- which they would have done anyway.

I don't like being treated like a child who can't handle the truth. I don't even treat my own children that way.

He lied when he didn't have to. That's a problem.

Posted by: Rick00 | December 23, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Ezra, many of us needed to hear the straight-up from you on this one. I agree with pbasso: Obama is too deeply invested in his own brand as a post-partisan healer, incapable of grasping that his opponents can damage him and his party irrevocably through their hysterical, hateful gimmicks. He's never been around anyone who wanted him to fail.

He needs to summon his inner Bill Clinton and recalibrate in the new year before the Dems' historic opportunity to change the direction of the country goes down in flames.

Posted by: scarlota | December 23, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Rick, as a supporter of Obama and the "public option" I'm surprised you'd quote Joe Wilson. Especially in the context of what constitutes adult behaviour. I can only assume you don't see the contradictions in your position or that you're trying a little too hard to be "provacative".

CB in Hamburg

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | December 23, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Let me suggest something.

Obama, like myself, may be unlikely to get stuck on one particular instance of a general idea.

Example: I say I'll clean up the leaves. There's an unexpected delay, and then a big wind storm blows the leaves down the street into the green area (park). Ergo, I've met my commitment, which wasn't a narrow specific of bagging leaves so much as it was to be sure they were gone.

If Obama worked to get something, of any kind whatsoever, that had the *effect* of producing a result similar to a moderately effective public option (after the exchanges gradually become more open), then he's fulfilled his commitment.

Only Congress is vested with the power to make law. We pretend the president can do more than he can sometimes.

So, I want to see Obama fulfill his commitment *soon* by working during the conference to make the exchanges effective (such as by powerful risk-pooling)....

Meanwhile, I won't pretend he hasn't done what is yet to come.

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 23, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Can someone explain something to me? I keep hearing that Obama spent so much time focussing on health care that he has not been able to focus enough on the economy. My question: how the heck is he supposed to focus on the economy when there is no action possible that would not be blocked by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats?

You can talk about the economy until you're blue in the face, but doing something requires government spending - and where is the likelihood that that will be approved?

Posted by: Virginia7 | December 23, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

- What about 'taxation policy'?
- Undertaking infrastructure spending and getting around folks on that policy.
- What happened to Green Economy and gobs of jobs to be created by that? When President Obama, White House and Democrats start sprouting 'green jobs, green jobs' pretty soon; you will realize what can be done.
- I do not agree, but listen to Matt, Paul Krugman, Gagnon, Bredlog and others who advocate that it is Bernanke's Fed who holds the key here. So naturally, it is up to White House to ask Fed 'why is it not doing that' as well as control Congress in not throwing the baby (Fed) out of water.
- Invent new ways by which employment can be generated in 21st century. Are you saying you, me and other bright minds like Klein would not come up with plans when exhorted to do our national duty (of coming up with employment plans)? You see, our only problem is our President hardly talks about that; he is too busy with HCR.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 23, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Phew, Ezra! I was beginning to think you were doing PR for the Administration! There's some daylight there between you and the Prez, I guess! LOL

Posted by: michaelterra | December 23, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

the president is treading on very very thin ice here. I am not one who's calling to kill the bill nor do I think he's sold out on any particular issue. But this. This is an insult to our intelligence.
1. He seems to parse his words very carefully so he can always have plausible deniability. For somebody who actually took time to read his healthcare plan on his campaign website, I feel awfully decieved. He just told me that I completely wasted my time.
2. It seems like the president is purposely trying to upset the left so that he can seem more moderate. He wants to answer that nagging question during the campaing: "when have you ever stood up to your own party?"

This is takes the cake. I am a pragmatic, mainstream democrat. I don't see me voting republican anytime soon. But color me utterly disappointed.

Posted by: lagnappe | December 23, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

umesh409, while Krugman has said quite a few various things, my impression from reading more than a handful of his posts is that he points out often that the Fed can't do much at this point that will work other than the obvious stuff they've already done, and an inflation target. In short that fiscal stimulus has far more leverage than the fed here.

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 23, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Good comments. Except CB -- man, get a grip on reality!

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 23, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you've been doing great work on this, but you're getting this one wrong, and the reason is because you're not looking at the statements during the interview that your colleague didn't quote in the article.

And I humbly suggest that in context Obama certainly does not contend that, as you put it, "he's arguing that he never cared about the public option anyway."

Take a look. I'm emphasizing the offending remark but including more around it:

"So, every single criteria for reform that I put forward is in this bill. It is true that that the Senate version does not have a public option and that has become a source of ideological contention between the left and the right, but _I didn't campaign on a public option_. I think it is a good idea but as I said on that speech on September 9, it just one small element of a broader reform effort.

"So we don't feel that the core elements to help the American people that I campaigned on -- and that we've been fighting for all year -- have been compromised in any significant way. Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything that I'd want? Of course not. But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government. So the way I generally think about compromise has been that I start with a set of core principles about what it is we're trying to achieve. We work with House and Senate members -- and there are some red lines that can't be crossed from our perspective -- and there are other areas where there are legitimate debates about how to achieve those goals. If someone can show me a different way of getting things done that accomplishes that endpoint, I'm happy to consider those."

Posted by: flipyrwhig | December 23, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

umesh409, if you'd like to delve a little deeper into the economic stuff than this blog or Krugman offer, here's a rather brief post that will suggest some of the pieces to examine to get a broader/deeper view:

Posted by: HalHorvath | December 23, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

HalHorvath, that's a useful link. Not to hijack the thread, but I liked what he said here:

"I certainly underestimated the degree to which cronyism and special interests ruled the roost in Washington. I no longer believe government can be an effective agent of change in the U.S any more than it has been in Japan."

Wish I could port this over to the thread on solving problems:

Posted by: rosshunter | December 23, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse


1. Stop being disingenous about Obama and the public option.

2. Check the records, he never campaigned on a "public option" as the only alternative to private insurance. He said he favored an alternative such the one federal employees and congress enjoyed which would be strongly controlled and supervised by the government. Such an exchange he said should include private insurance and a public insurance option.

3. The operative phrase in most of his campaign was "an exchange like what federal employees and congress enjoy, strongly controlled and supervised by government, which would include private insurance and public insurance". So the public option as a major alternative was not what he said.

4. During the campaign he said he did not like or favor mandates. That is what he said. So if you have mandates with federal subsidy for those who cannot afford, it becomes a zero-sum mandate. What's is important is that medicaid is being expanded considerably.

5. Only people like you do not see the big picture. Watch out Ezra, the Obama White House, would be the implementing branch of government to execute the bill.

6. Any exchange set up with strong government control and supervision is going to be in part a "public option" though a weak one.

The opponents of the public option would soon realize they were not too smart afterall. It comes as no surprise that Senator Reid and the White House are saying, let us get the Senate Bill passed first and we would see what the next move would be.

Posted by: ameys1msncom | December 23, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, as a strong Obama supporter, you are far too generous in describing him as being "misleading at worst." A fairer assessment would be Obama was being deceitful at best, lying at worst.

Sadly, for those of us who voted for him and expected so much, Obama is as full of self-righteousness, arrogance as Bush II. Anyone with any objectivity should agree there are many similarities between Obama and Bush II, in their arrogance, being deceitful, some of their policies, including secrecy, lack of transparency, the wars in the middle east. Sure there are a lot of differences too, but overall this has hardly been change most people can believe in.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | December 23, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

I would argue that Obama gained not a single vote based on his support for the public option. No one voted for him on the basis of that proposal. It never became a campaign issue like his opposition to the mandate.

It seems to me progressives are upset because Obama didn't fight hard enough for something he supported but never thought was essential. What's bizarre about that is that Obama may have simply accurately counted the votes for the public option. There were never 60 votes and there weren't going to be 60 votes. So progressives are mad at Team Obama because they can count votes?

Senate Democrats are poised to pass the greatest piece of social legislation since at least LBJ, legislation several presidents have failed at getting passed, and progressives are trying to snatch the feeling of defeat from a major victory. We're quibbling when we should be celebrating (and working to improve the bill).

Posted by: bbebop | December 23, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps our time would be better spent figuring out the bill rather than analyzing to the extreme every little thing President Obama says.
No offense, Mr. Klein. You are one of the better "translators".
Let's keep the ball moving forward and not fall into the useless back and forth of a "polarized" America. It is essential to keep our thoughts straight and focus on our end goal- No Americans dying for the lack of care.
Mr. Klein, would there be any way to encourage the public to get involved in solutions for the people in trouble now? Such as what Keith Olbermann did on his show?
Maybe we could get America's bands to do some benefits to pay for mobile clinics?

Does the Gates foundation help Americans too?

Posted by: ThePoliticalStraycom | December 23, 2009 11:09 PM | Report abuse

And Congress writes the bills. What role do they have in all of this? I keep wondering why people want to blame President Obama for what is or isn't in the bill. Yes, he can say what he wants and he campaigned on that but then reality hits and he is left with what Congress sends him. If this bill is bad or doesn't contain what some people really wanted then it is the fault of Congress isn't it?

Posted by: catmomtx | December 24, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

Hot Air -- It’s come to this: New lefty ad hits Obama for broken health-care promises

Posted by: StewartIII | December 24, 2009 1:14 AM | Report abuse

I am with you, a bit dismayed at the loss of the public option, and if the Pres came out and said he tried but getting 60 people to agree on something meant that he wasn't going to be able to pull through with the "sliver" (which I remember as his own words) of the public option because of some (choose the best politically correct words while I think of the umprintable ones) Senators who would not go along with it. I coiuld say there goes a great manager because he isn't trying to worm his way out of the problem and is facing facts. I know he doesn't want to go pointing fingers and blaming people. And if you know anything about the Civil War, Lincoln faced defeat after defeat for two years (there were some successes but even for his size, this was no slam dunk either [they didn't even have hoopball back then]).

He may be hoping to get this "half a loaf" of a bill passed with the goal of getting the rest of the loaf in 2010. I am holding out for that. But he oughtta come clean and admit that we are down at the half but the game ain't over yet, in fact we havent't gotten all that far into the season yet.

Posted by: glenglish | December 24, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't believe a Washington Post employee on the pain of death. I have seen too many lies in the Post delivered by their correspondents

Posted by: albee703 | December 24, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company