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Progressives to Obama: Time to Step Up

Glenn Thrush and Carrie Budoff Brown

US President Barack Obama is pictured here playing basketball with personal aide Reggie Love, at St Bartholomew's Church in New York City, in September. Obama has lashed back at critics who fear he lacks the steel to be a successful president, saying "I'm skinny ... but I'm tough." Yes, Mr. President, tough. But will you fight? ask progressives. (AFP/Pete Souza)

It's time for your close-up, Mr. President.

Now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
(D-Nev.) has announced he'll try to push through a health care reform
bill with a public option, liberals are turning their focus - and their
frustrations - on Barack Obama, the man who brought them to the
outskirts of the progressive promise land.

Even before Reid announced Monday that he would back a public option
plan that would allow individual states to opt out of the controversial
plan, progressives had begun to shift from pressuring legislative
leaders to stiffening Obama's spine on the issue.

Democratic senators and House members didn't need to shift their
attention to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: They have been grumbling for weeks
that Obama needs to step up.

"I hope the president speaks out strongly for the public option - this
health care bill really becomes his at this point," said Sen. Sherrod
Brown (D-Ohio), one of about 30 Democrats who have pressured Reid to
back the controversial option.

"[Reid] took the temperature of his caucus and found that he had to go
with the public option," added Brown. "And now it's the president's
turn. ... He needs to speak out strongly on a number of issues ...
affordability ... the subsidy question - really on the whole package."

Darcy Burner, executive director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation,
which favors a robust public plan, said the fact that the White House
was "hands off" has forced Reid and other leaders to take political
risks they otherwise might not have incurred.

"They have not played a strong leadership role in this fight," she said.

Administration officials have been annoyed by what they percieve as a
drumbeat of unfair criticism ­- much of it from unnamed Hill Democrats.
They say they have given Reid and other Democrats the freedom to craft
a deal acceptable to members - and have only expressed a preference for
the public option plan that stands the best chance of passing.

The flashpoint for many liberals was the president's huddle last week with Senate Democrats
- a meeting in which reportedly he remained noncommittal about the
specifics of reform and re-asserted his "preference" but not outright
support for the public option.

That drew a lot of attention on the left, including a broadside from
PBS host Tavis Smiley, who expressed frustration with Obama on Sunday's
"Meet the Press" on NBC.

"I think we voted for this president because we believed in his
character," Smiley said. "The question now is does he have courage,
does he have conviction and does he have commitment?" he added. "The
only way this thing is going to succeed is if the president leads on
this issue."

At the same time, Senate Democrats were quietly expressing frustration
that Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel still favored a version of the
public option that includes a "trigger," which would kick in only if
insurance companies fail to reduce costs and continue to deny coverage
- an assertion administration officials also deny.


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On Sunday night, seeking to blunt criticism from the left, White House
officials posted a blog entry saying "rumors" of a Senate-White House
rift on the public option were "absolutely false" and emphasized that
the administration was still working closely with Reid.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee,
which has pressured Reid and others to back the public option, wasn't
buying that argument.

"Expressing a preference for the public option is not the same as
fighting for the public option," wrote Green, whose group has posted an
online petition to pressure the White House.

"President Obama will be judged by many of his biggest 2008 supporters
on whether he fights for a strong public option at this critical
moment," he added.

Reid and his brain trust still believe the president needs to play a
hands-on role in securing the votes of two or three conservative
Democrats wavering on the public option.

The Nevada Democrat, who spoke with nearly all of the members of his
60-member caucus this weekend, currently has between 56 and 57 votes
for a proposal to create a national insurance plan but allow states to
opt out of it, according to Democratic aides.

Reid said he will not send the "trigger" option to the Congressional Budget Office - which endangers the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe
(R-Maine), who has not signed on to the opt-out idea. But Democratic
aides say that if Reid fails to generate enough support for the
opt-out, he could eventually call a vote for the trigger plan - which
could be expected to draw between 58 and 59 votes.

With the wrangling over the public option dominating the debate on
Capitol Hill, the patience of Senate Democratic aides is running low.
They have grown exasperated with the White House over its hands-off
approach to settling a dispute that has so thoroughly divided the

"The White House needs to step up here and needs to indicate what they
want on the public option and whether it is important for them to get to 60 or not,
and they need to implore both moderates and liberals in the caucus to
get agreement on this, or they could see this bill fall on the Senate
floor," said a Senate Democratic aide.

"The White House has got to be more forthright and more forceful with members," the person added.

Still, Brown and other public-option supporters say that the
president's strategy has turned out to be effective thus far, even if
by accident.

"It's worked so far," said Brown. "I knew we would have a public
option, even back in August when we thought it was dead and buried."

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