Was Obama Clear on the Public Option?

In his prime time address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama offered support for the public option, but not as strongly as some liberal supporters may have hoped for.

In discussing the public option, Mr. Obama began by saying this: "An additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange."

Mr. Obama also acknowledged opposition to the public option and tried to dispel myths about it. He said it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance, that no one would be forced to choose it and that it would have to be "self-sufficient" via funding from premiums.

"By avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities," he added.

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The president also pointed out that polls, such as ones conducted by CBS News, show public support for it.

But then the president started to more directly engage each side of the debate over the public option.

"Its impact shouldn't be exaggerated -- by the left or the right or the media," he said. "It is only one part of my plan, and shouldn't be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles. To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage available for those without it… the public option is only a means to that end, and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal. And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."

And here's what he said about the alternatives to the public option being discussed in Congress: "For example, some have suggested that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies. Others have proposed a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan. These are all constructive ideas worth exploring."

Mr. Obama closed with what could be seen as the takeaway line from the section of the speech: "But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice. And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."

That line appears to allow for some wiggle room as to whether the final bill includes a public option or not. Many liberals in Congress have drawn a line in the sand over the public option, saying they will not support a health care bill that does not include it.


In his analysis immediately following the speech, CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer said that part of the speech was aimed at those liberals in the president's own party. (Video at left)

"It seems to me what the president was really saying tonight, he was saying to the liberals in his own party -- 'look, we're not going to get this public, government-run insurance program that you're insisting on, but there are a lot of things that we can get done, very significant things.' He is saying 'don't miss the forest for the trees here.'"

"Now is that going to work? I don't know," Schieffer added. "That's the case he laid out tonight, and kind of throwing a bone to them, he said 'look if it turns out basically that private insurance companies are not providing insurance to all of the people that need it then we can talk about this so-called public plan.'"

What's clear in following the health care debate on Capitol Hill is that the public option's fate is still up in the air. Only time will tell how liberals in Congress react to the speech and whether Mr. Obama was able to move the debate forward.

Full CBSNews.com coverage of the president's speech on health care:

Obama Tells Congress to Stop Bickering
Full Video Full Transcript Speech Highlights
GOP Response: "It's Time to Start Over"
Marc Ambinder: Will Obama's Sales Job Work?
Mark Knoller: Obama Willing to Compromise — Up to a Point
Was Obama Clear on the Public Option?
Ted Kennedy's Letter to Obama
Rep. Wilson Apologizes for Obama Speech Outburst
Analysis: The Road Ahead for Health Care