The Washington Times - September 8, 2009, 07:09PM

Robert Gibbs was asked Tuesday what he meant when he said on a Sunday talk show that President Obama is ready to do “whatever to get health care done.”

Gibbs answer was interesting for its phrasing.

“Whatever is whatever,” he said.

No doubt any book agent in New York (un)fortunate enough to be watching at the moment sat up straight at the sound of such a sellable title.

But Gibbs was talking about Obama’s well documented and much written about pragmatism (see here and here for examples of this).

“I think what’s always been a hallmark of the president is there’s not a rigidity,” Gibbs said. “He’s focused on the end and he’s focused on results. And I think that’s what the American people will see tomorrow night.”

That is what the White House hopes they see. In fact, Obama is staking much of his success in tomorrow’s speech on whether or not he can convince the American public that he is a pragmatist, not a liberal ideologue.

It comes down to an issue of trust. Obama will say that a public option, if included in a health care reform bill, will not be a black hole for government dollars that capsizes the private insurance industry.

“The president will be fairly specific about, again, what it is and what it isn’t, meaning this is not going to be some grandiosely subsidized, unlevel playing field,” Gibbs said.

But Obama has said this before. On Aug. 11, during a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Obama made the following argument:



Now, I recognize, though, you make a legitimate — you raise a legitimate concern. People say, well, how can a private company compete against the government? And my answer is that if the private insurance companies are providing a good bargain, and if the public option has to be self-sustaining — meaning taxpayers aren’t subsidizing it, but it has to run on charging premiums and providing good services and a good network of doctors, just like any other private insurer would do — then I think private insurers should be able to compete. They do it all the time. (Applause.)

I mean, if you think about — if you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? No, they are. It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems. (Laughter.)

So right now you’ve got private insurers who are out there competing effectively, even though a lot of people get their care through Medicare or Medicaid or VA. So there’s nothing inevitable about this somehow destroying the private marketplace, as long as — and this is a legitimate point that you’re raising — that it’s not set up where the government is basically being subsidized by the taxpayers, so that even if they’re not providing a good deal, we keep on having to pony out more and more money. And I’ve already said that can’t be the way the public option is set up. It has to be self-sustaining.

The president made this same argument in an interview with Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty on Aug. 17.

But the poll numbers have continued to go the wrong direction for the president.

Maybe the White House thinks this is one of their better arguments and it needs to be hammered home more often and on a bigger stage. But in much the same way that many simply did not believe President Bush when he said his immigration reform plan would enforce border security, many simply don’t believe Obama when he says the public option won’t lead to government-run health care.

We’ll see tomorrow if he’s able to do what Bush was not.

— Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times

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