Cooling Off Period: Hands-Off Obama Leaves Health Care To Hill

January 21, 2010 2:33 p.m.

President Obama, hammered for taking a hands-off approach on health care to begin with, has all but disappeared from the discussions as Congressional leaders attempt to figure out a way to finalize a health care plan now that they have just 59 Senate seats.

Our sources suggest to us the White House has been hands-off since the fate of the health care bill went from nearly done to unbelievably uncertain this week.

Obama’s health care message has been to say he hopes Congress tries to “move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on,” a signal many took as backing away to let leaders do what they think is most politically viable.

A White House aide insisted Obama is “engaged” on health care and that “active” discussions are happening in an around the Oval Office.

Obama has been speaking with Congressional leadership including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Leader Harry Reid.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel also is talking to members, though aides say he’s not advocating for one position, but is listening to their thoughts on health care.

Administration officials said the White House view is to let the results of Tuesday’s elections play themselves out so members can “digest” the political implications and figure out a way ahead.

The White House views it as a fluid situation and aides warned against jumping to conclusions based on what members say is the president’s level of involvement.

The White House also is reluctant to come in and demand Congress take a certain path toward finishing health care in the aftermath of the Senate election in Massachusetts. Aides believe it makes more sense to allow some time to pass and give leadership breathing room to convince their caucus to support the more conservative Senate bill – a plan the administration began advocating for before the polls had even closed Tuesday.

But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admitted today that Obama agrees with leadership taking a breather to let the “dust settle,” adding that the president has a “full plate” he can concentrate on in the meantime.

Aides privately concede there are consequences to inaction and said the White House is firmly aware of that. They fervently pushed back on any suggestions that the fight has ended.

But pollsters close to the White House say officials there also are well aware they have lost the country’s support on the two bills. Voters like individual elements of the bills but are far more concerned about unemployment.

That’s one reason you’ve seen Obama pivot to a populist push this week, and tomorrow he’ll be talking about jobs during an Ohio town hall.

Even opponents of the current bills aren’t sure where to focus their attention. The Chamber of Commerce is still running ads against the plan, but keeping a close watch on Congress to see if health care will die and they can move on to other issues.

“Like everybody else we’re still trying to figure out what policy makers are going to decide to do,” said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Republicans are enjoying the Democratic scramble to figure out a plan for action, but have actually eased off their health care criticism.

Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House special counsel who now writes a political column for The Hill, told TPMDC the fight among Democrats about the public option allowed Republicans to define the bill this summer.

Now the only option for Obama is to reach out to Republicans, he said. “He has a good excuse now that we lost. We have to decide is something better than nothing,” Davis said.

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