The White House Strategy

by Brien Jackson

Responding to a previous post, commenter J made some very good points. I’ve been pretty busy recently between work and assignments and screaming children, so not yet having a chance to address them, I figure they deserve their own post. The response comes in two parts. The first:

if the rhetoric thus far has been of little importance, would there have been a big price to pay if the President had made his message “the public option is a really important piece of reform” rather than “the public option would be kinda nice” (which is at least how the White House position is being perceived)? I can’t imagine those messages would be that different if the desired end result is to “exhaust” the bipartisan process.

As far as I can say, the only thing I can take away from this is that the White House has basically wanted to take an ambiguous stance on the specifics of the bill. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, you don’t really want to clearly define the “liberal Obama position,” because that sets up a pretty bright marker for “centrist” Democrats in Congress for ways in which they can alter the bill and then run to the cameras to proclaim they “broke with the White House” and “put a check on Obama.” Secondly, I’m really not sure you can overstate the degree to which the Obama team is trying to avoid what they see as the mistakes the Clinton administration made in pushing healthcare, chief among which was burning the gunpowder far too soon, and exhausting their capital before the Congressional meatgrinder did its dirty work. For better or worse, there really isn’t any way to work around that messy process, and the Obama team has made the decision upfront that they’re going to let Congress work, and try to keep the powder dry until they can be most effective, which is probably somewhere around the conference committee. But up until that point, I wouldn’t expect too many bright policy lines from the White House.

Secondly:

don’t you think that less “faulty messaging” on behalf of the White House could increase the pressure on some right-wing democratic senators, making them more likely to support a public option?

No. There really aren’t any mechanisms by which Obama can pressure truly intransigent Democrats, particularly in the Senate. If you look at Mary Landrieu, for example, she doesn’t have to run for re-election until 2014 when, presumably, Obama could have been voted out of office. Evan Bayh and Max Baucus are safe in their own right, and other marginal Democrats have their own agendas. I know some progressives imagine Obama threatening to cut off DNC or DSCC money, but the real truth of the matter is that Senators, by and large, don’t really need that money. Thanks to their long terms and disproportionate impact on policy, it’s fairly easy for incumbent Senators to amass substantial war-chests, even if they don’t really need them. Evan Bayh, for example, is currently sitting on about $14 million in available funds, even though he isn’t likely to face any sort of credible challenge. And institutionally, this sort of pressure has to come from the larger Senate caucus, not the President.