Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius found out the hard way that when you say what your boss may really be thinking, or worse, end up doing so on a crucial piece of legislation, you get quickly smacked down. Sebelius, in an unscripted and unvetted moment, said that President Obama's public option in the health care reform war could go by the wayside if that's what it takes to get Senate obstructionists to back a reform bill. Sebelius didn't say anything that Obama's point man Rahm Emanuel didn't hint at weeks earlier -- and that Obama himself has hinted at. The public option is not only expendable, but likely will go.
Even if Sebelius, Emanuel, and Obama hadn't dropped the hint that it can be tossed, it would still likely go. This has much less to do with angry town hall loudmouths, the drum beat of Fox Network, Limbaugh, and the legion of right shrill blogger attacks, and GOP orchestrated Senate attacks on the public option, than Obama the politician. Obama wants -- no desperately needs -- to win a big victory on health care, or at least the appearance of a victory, even if the victory means scrapping the only thing in the health care reform package that really represents true health care reform. Put another way, a government health insurance option is the only real lever to make the pharmaceuticals and health care insurers lower drug costs, reduce their obscene profit rake-offs, deliver better services, eliminate the endless dodges that insurers use to cherry pick only the most healthy and profitable patients, and make some dent in the 45 to 50 million uninsured.
If private health insurers and the pharmaceuticals had done that decades ago without a government lever, the whole health care debate and crisis would have long since been a moot point. Obama well knows this, and has said as much in his earlier political days. But that was then, and now it must be said again, and again, that Obama quickly morphed into the archtypical Hollywood casting lot moderate, centrist Democrat who will cut a political deal with legislation to get something -- anything -- out of it that can be sold as a win. This is nothing new, let alone a sign of duplicity, with Obama.
A cursory read of his record, as well as a fine comb of his speeches, statements, and interviews, confirms that the talk during the campaign of Obama as an unreconstructed far-out liberal was mostly just talk; first by Hillary Clinton, and later by conservative talk jocks, Sarah Palin and the GOP attack teams.
If he even remotely resembled what the attack hounds claimed he was he could never have gotten the stamp of approval from top Democrats, beat down the Clinton machine, gotten the parade of endorsements from former Reagan and Bush Sr., and even W. Bush officials. And most imortant, broken the cash registers on fund raising. That included a a generous plop of more than $2 million into the Obama campaign till. Republican rival John McCain got a relatively paltry $600,000 and some change.
Obama's centrist bent was plainly evident during the campaign when he and McCain at times sounded like they were more agreement than not on the issues of expansion of stem-cell research, immigration, faith-based social services, expanded government wiretapping, building more nuclear power plants, global warming, fair trade, and the death penalty. The similarity between the two was more glaring when Obama edged closer to McCain on their plans on health care and taxes and the Iraq War. This also was no surprise.
The truism in American presidential politics is that liberals and even one-time progressives always run to the political left in the early stages of a campaign. They then move quickly to the center or even rightward as victory becomes a real possibility.
Even when Obama spoke most passionately about change he kept the door wide open to reshape, massage, and contour policy issues to conform to what was pragmatic, doable and acceptable. Obama's voting record in the Illinois state legislature gave a strong hint that his liberal record was hazier than it appeared. He got high marks from liberal groups on votes on environmental, gun control, abortion, civil liberties protections, and ethics reform. But he also deftly ducked taking positions on some of the same issues when they could stir rancor and were potentially polarizing. During his stint in the legislature, Obama used the tactic more often than most senators and rarely gave a reason why.
Whatever Obama's motive for not taking a firm stand on these issues, and not spelling out the reason why, it helped burnish his credentials with conservative Republicans and right leaning Democrats as a man willing to compromise -- even conciliate -- on big ticket issues that conservatives routinely support or oppose.
That hasn't changed. And all signs past and present point to the public option as the latest casualty in the routine compromises that politicians make in playing the political game. And Obama has played the game far better than most.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard weekly in Los Angeles, Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com.