What The White House's Public Plan "Retreat" Really Means

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There's a good argument going on Twitter about what President Obama wanted vis-a-vis the public plan, and what his team actually meant to do today. All I know is that the White House is NOT pushing back against news stories claiming that the "public option" has been essentially taken off the table by the White House.

What this means, however, is up for debate.

Because the President never insisted that a health care bill contain a public plan, he intended to use it as a bargaining chip. It was on the table so it could be consumed, or taken off, whenever  the White House felt it was useful.

No mistake: The President supports a public option. He's said that he won't sign a bill that doesn't include some competitive mechanism in the health care exchange that would cover most of the uninsured, and has said that a government-run program would be the best way to do that.  That's all he's said, though.

That's why Senate Democrats felt free to explore the cooperative option in the first place.

To be honest, I'm not entirely convinced that HHS Sec. Sebelius and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went on television today in order to say anything about the public plan. Yesterday, Obama himself admitted that the public plan ain't really what the bill is about.

The White House -- and Democrats -- messed this up. Maybe it was inevitable. Somehow, and maybe I'll write this article for a magazine, the idea of the public plan became the sine qua non of meaningful reform for a very vocal portion of the Democratic intellectual elite. House Democrats embraced the idea.  If you equate health care reform with a public option, then, well, health care reform is dead to you.  There are a lot of angry liberals tonight. They are within their rights to feel aggrieved.

The White House DID play up the potential cost-cutting that a public plan might, sometime down the road, produce. Afterall, given the political environment at the time they first started to argue about health care, they had no choice: the public, Democrats in Congress were mouths-agape about the deficit. In polling and focus groups, cost works well. And the public option -- combined with the handy-dandy IMAC price commission proposal -- are curve-benders.

Before the health care debate began in earnest, I can tell you that very senior White House officials believed that some form of public plan was absolutely necessary to ensure that the overall bill would be seen as a cost-cutter.  That opinion changed roundabout three months ago when it became clear that even a public plan with a trigger mechanism -- Rahm Emanuel's preferred option -- just didn't have the votes.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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