There is a growing sense on Capitol Hill that the White House's refusal to weigh in more forcefully in the health care debate could come at the cost of a public option for insurance coverage.
Democratic aides said that a "handful" of senators who are skeptical of a public plan likely could be persuaded if not to support it then at least to oppose a Republican filibuster, if the administration were to apply a bit more pressure -- or even guidance.
"There is a clear sense that it would be helpful," said one senior Democratic aide. "Throughout this entire debate the White House line has been 'We will weigh in when it is necessary'.... Well now we need 60 votes. So if it's not necessary now, then when will it be?"
"I think folks in general in Congress were looking to the president to clearly define his feeling on the issue," another aide said. "And I don't think he has done that on the public option from the get-go... With a lot of senators nervous because of elections or other political dynamics, it would be helpful for the president to send a strong signal that this is what he wants in the final bill."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday insisted that the administration had already made its priorities abundantly clear. "I think the folks on Capitol Hill, based on the speech the president gave on Capitol Hill, know where he stands," Gibbs said, in response to a question from the Huffington Post at his morning gaggle with reporters.
The president's hand could in fact be limited in terms of getting skeptics to support a public plan. One senior Democratic aide noted that many of the teetering Senators come from states where Obama's standing is quite poor. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for instance, hails from a state where the president earned less than 42 percent of the vote in 2008. In Louisiana, home to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), it was less than 40 percent.
That said, local polling shows that the public plan itself is popular in those traditionally conservative states even if the president is not. As The Plum Line's Greg Sargent pointed out, based on internal data from a new Washington Post poll: "A majority wants a Dem-only bill rather than a bipartisan one if the Dem-only one includes a public insurance option and the bipartisan one doesn't. A majority of Independents wants the same."
All of which has spurred progressive activists to ask: Why isn't the White House making a stronger case that the provision is smart politics in addition to smart policy? "People believe the president knows what he is doing and there is a method to this madness," said one strategist who works with both the legislative and executive branch on health care. "It seems like [getting more forceful now on the public plan] would be a good thing to do and it is tough to tell why it hasn't happened. It's the $64,000 question."