Re-Evaluating President Obama's Strategy

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Jack White, regular contributor to The Root
Jon Cowan, president and co-founder of Third Way
Anna Greenberg, democratic pollster

Many see the ongoing health care debate as the first major test of President Barack Obama's effectiveness as president. Obama supporters debate whether the president should fight his opponents, or take the moral high ground.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

When President Obama took office in January, supporters from centrists to progressives looked forward to big changes, especially on his number one domestic priority, health care. Eight months later, opinion polls show support dwindling, and those still in his corner worry the president has lost control of the health care debate.

While the opposition makes hay with town hall protest slogans about pulling the plug on granny, complete government takeovers and covering illegal aliens, the Democrats bicker while the White House blows hot and cold on the public option. Suddenly, the president and his number one domestic priority find themselves at a political crossroads.

We'll check in with the opposition soon, but today, we want to talk with Obama supporters. How can the president close the deal on health care: try to retake the moral high ground while Congress hashes out details, steer toward to the middle and a bipartisan compromise, or drive a strictly Democratic plan through Congress?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the Justice Department releases a long-awaited report on allegations of Bush-era abuse of torture suspects, and the president creates a new unit, supervised by the White House, to conduct those interrogations from now on.

But first, Obama supporters critique Obama. Jack White is a contributor to the online magazine TheRoot.com, and he's got a pretty tough message for the man he describes as his beloved president. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. JACK WHITE (Contributor, TheRoot.com): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And if I might summarize your position: Stop punking out on health care.

Mr. WHITE: That's essentially it.

CONAN: What's he disappointed you with?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I think one of the president's most attractive personal characteristics is certainly one that has been an electoral strength for him. It's his tendency to want to reach compromises with his opponents. However, I think now that he's in office with a 60-vote majority in the Senate and a big majority in the House, that tendency to want to reach compromise has actually proven to be somewhat of a weakness.

You can't bipartisanship with an opposition that has no interest in doing anything other than trying to frustrate and defeat your goals and ambitions. And I think that's what he's got with the Republican Party.

I think the president's got to toughen up. He's got to seize control of this discussion. He's got to take it back from the moderate Democrats in the Senate. That way, he's allowed to negotiate a health-care proposal that looks like it's not going to have some of what used to be his highest priorities, and he's got to stop sending mixed messages on whether his administration does or does not back a public option.

CONAN: And that highest priority, you're saying, includes a public option.

Mr. WHITE: Oh, I think it's essential. I'm not an expert in this field, but based upon what I read, I don't understand how the president can reach one of his two major objectives, which is to lower the cost of health care, without including a public option as one of the choices that Americans would be able to have for their health insurance.

CONAN: And anything less would be a sellout?

Mr. WHITE: I think anything less would a sellout because he promoted it so heavily. Let me add quickly one - there's a precedent here. The president insisted earlier this year that reform of the mortgage issue, the mortgage problem, would require giving bankruptcy judges the ability to negotiate or re-fix (unintelligible) mortgages. That was negotiated out at the last minute. He caved in to the banking industry and the mortgage industry, which didn't want to do that. So we don't want to see a similar thing happen with health care reform.

CONAN: Well, let's get another opinion. Jon Cowan joins us now, president and co-founder of Third Way, a moderate progressive think tank. He's also with us here in the studio. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JON COWAN (President, Co-founder, Third Way): Great to be here.

CONAN: And you've argued for a different approach. Don't get down to brass tacks and push through a Democratic plan, but rather take the moral high ground.

Mr. COWAN: Indeed we have, Neal. Speaking as a moderate Democrat and a moderate progressive, I do disagree with Jack. The - if you stand far enough back, and this has really gotten lost in the very heated debate that's been going on this summer, what is already agreed to among Democrats, among the entire ideological sweep of Democrats, is in and of itself truly historic of the scale of the New Deal and the Great Society.

What's agreed to already is some very basic but powerful things. For example, today in America, if you have health insurance, and you have a pre-existing condition - you were unlucky enough to be born with a heart defect - you can be denied coverage based on that condition.

We have agreed, as a Democratic Party, to eliminate that and give what's called guarantee issue. I could go through a list of other things, but when you look at what's on the table right now, what you see is if Obama moves where he's got agreement among Democrats, he could pass something that would be historic, as big as FDR and LBJ, and our belief at Third Way is that's what we should do.

CONAN: But Jack White would say that does not include the public option, which a lot of people say is essential, including a lot of progressives in the House of Representatives.

Mr. COWAN: And, I might add, the president himself up until recently. At Third Way, our position is you can include or not include a public option. There are many who argue for it, and there are some who argue against it, but it is, to quote Obama, it's a sliver of reform. It's one piece, it's not the whole, and we need to be careful here.

We have an historic opportunity to do something that has eluded decades of progressive leaders and Democratic presidents. We can do it now if we seize is.

CONAN: Anna Greenberg, let me welcome you back to the program. Nice to have you with us.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Vice President, Principal, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Anna Greenberg, senior vice president and principal of the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democratic pollster, and some people would say, well, he's got this historic opportunity. He campaigned on this issue, he got elected on this issue, and he's blowing it.

Ms. GREENBERG: I think you have to be careful not to over-interpret the effect of the health-care debate on debate itself in this sense. Let's give this some context, okay? He has been - he, you know, comes into office with historically high numbers, and certainly by January, they're even higher than they are in November, and you had a series of things that have happened since then that have affected how people see how he's handling everything, including health-care reform.

So you have TARP, which is very unpopular, the bailout of the car companies. You've got the unemployment rate that gets, you know, released, which then leads people to question the economic recovery plan.

All this has an impact on how people see the health-care debate independent of the debate itself. So I just want to be careful. I feel like this whole debate is sort of suggesting that somehow Obama has, at his fingertips, the power to control, you know, how this debate proceeds and unfolds and how it's perceived by people.

You also, I think, pay a price for letting Congress take the lead on this. It was a very ugly, sausage-making process that's still going on, and that has had an impact, as well. So I just want to make sure we have that context as a starting point here.

CONAN: Right. The reason he did that was the lesson of the Clinton administration, when the White House presented a plan, and it was picked apart by the opposition. Doing it this way, he's allowed the oppositions apparently untrammeled opportunities to pick out various little bit of what might be in the plan, and in some cases what isn't in the plan, and make hay with it.

Ms. GREENBERG: Well, sure, but they did that in '93, and they would have done it whether or not he introduced his own plan or not. I mean, this is not just a function of the fact that Congress has taken the lead on this.

I think that, you know, to be clear, I think that there have been some strategic, you know, mistakes, and I think a clearer articulation of the principles that he supports from the beginning, articulated consistently throughout, would have been very helpful.

It wouldn't have answered the falsehoods and misperceptions that are out there about this plan. It certainly wouldn't have stopped what's happening with the town halls. So I just want to be clear. I think that the president himself is the chief spokesperson and that he is going to sort of rise or fall on whether or not this passes, but it's not completely in his control, and we should be careful not to suggest that, that to suggest that somehow all of the problems of his making.

I want to add one more thing, because I think that people are not looking clearly at what the polling data says about the overall attitude and environment that we're in. While you have declining numbers on job approval and health care and the plan itself, generically described, when you actually describe the plan, we still have majority support.

The latest NBC Wall Street Journal poll from last week has 53 percent supporting the Obama plan, and then when you talk about the individual items that Jon mentioned, like the issue of pre-existing conditions and other reforms, you've got 70, 80 percent support.

So there may be some political issues with selling a plan that doesn't exist yet, but the principle, the principles that are incorporated have majority support.

CONAN: Does it have majority support in the Congress?

Mr. COWAN: Well, let me speak go this, Neal, a couple things. First of all, we should be clear. The right wing was going to demagogue health-insurance reform no matter how we proceeded. If Obama had a bill, if the House had a bill, if the Senate had a bill - they were determined to demagogue this because they don't believe that government has a positive role to play. This is a difference of philosophy. They don't - they're health care deniers. They don't fundamentally believe anything's wrong the system, and they said openly they thought they could bring the White House down by opposing health care. So tactically, it didn't matter. The right was going to demagogue it.

Secondly, when we entered this health care debate, it's crucial to remember that most Americans, over 80 percent of Americans who have health care are satisfied with their health-care insurance. And of the people who voted in the last election 94 percent, 94 percent had health-care insurance. What does that mean?

What it means is that the middle class entering this debate wasn't sure what was in it for them, and we were always going to have an uphill fight until we made clear to the middle class exactly what they got out of health care reform.

Mr. WHITE: But that's precisely why a clear voice from Obama, who is the greatest communicator we've had, at least since the days of Ronald Reagan, was necessary. You had to persuade the middle class, who didn't know what was in it, what was in it for them.

Let me just go back also and unpack one other issue. It is clear that the Republicans were going to demagogue it, but that's not who his main problem is with now. Right now, his main problem is with some so-called Blue Dog or cons -moderate Democrats in the Senate who have been negotiating with right wing, lying, dishonest Republicans, and they White House has…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Maybe a couple of truth-telling Republicans, too.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I'm not so sure that the ones that they're negotiating with - I would not put Charles Grassley in the category of a truth-teller about this. He has endorsed, essentially, Sarah Palin's totally dishonest claim that the health care reform bill contained these so-called death panels.

I don't call - you know, who are you negotiating with? Somebody who will go along with anything. So there was no necessity, in my view, from the very beginning to make such a fetish out of bipartisanship. I agree with you - with the analysis about the poll figures. This is not all Obama's fault, but exactly what Anna mentioned about the tactical failures is exactly the reason why it was necessary, in my view, for the president to take the lead on this from the beginning.

CONAN: But doesn't that give the opposition another argument, Anna Greenberg, briefly, that well, he's ramming it down the throats of the Americans. Not one Republican's going to vote for it.

Ms. GREENBERG: You know, the whole notion that things need to be bipartisan is more of an elite, I think, issue than it is an issue for voters. I think voters want to see something get done, and I don't think they care that much about whether or not Republicans co-sponsor it or not.

Mr. WHITE: Why, then, do you think that the Obama administration seems to make such a fetish of it?

Mr. COWAN: Here's why. Barack Obama was elected president because he made people believe that he could actually transcend ideological differences and partisan divides. That was his central argument as a candidate, and I don't know the man, but it appears that that's what he believes in his soul, and he wants to deliver that here.

CONAN: That's Jon Cowan of the Third Way. Also with us, Jack White of TheRoot.com and Anna Greenberg, who's a Democratic pollster. We're talking about how President Obama can close the deal on health care. We're talking tactics, people, here. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. President Obama took off on vacation this week. There is no holiday, though, for the debate over health care, and the president is hearing it from both left and right.

We'll check in with the opposition soon, but today, we want to talk with Obama supporters. How can the president close the deal on health care: try to retake the moral high ground while Congress hashes out details, steer toward the middle and a bipartisan compromise, or drive a strictly Democratic plan through Congress? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us here in Studio 3A, Jack White, a regular contributor to TheRoot.com, he wrote the column last week titled "Stop Punking Out, Obama." Also with us, Jon Cowan, president and co-founder of Third Way; and Anna Greenberg, Democratic pollster and senior vice president and principal at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and let's get a caller on the line. Farrell(ph) joins us from Sacramento.

FARRELL (Caller): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. It seems as though the debate is hinging on whether or not we can gain the upper hand. I do believe that what we need to do is expose the insurance companies for their greed.

United Health Care, for instance, who has an individual who apparently is at the head of that company. His name is Hemsley. That individual makes, get this, $102,000 per hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FARRELL: That kind of greed, that kind of graft, essentially, is what is killing health care in America. We need to expose these people, period.

CONAN: Jon Cowan, do we need villains in this debate?

Mr. COWAN: I don't agree with Farrell. I mean, I understand his point about that being a lot of money. By any measure, that's a lot of money.

CONAN: And we don't know that to be true, but…

Mr. COWAN: But if it were true, or if were even 20 percent true, that would still be a big number. But this is - Obama is - if Obama is going to win this fall and get health care across the finish line, and I believe he will, he's going to have to do one thing above all others. He's going to have to explain to the middle class what they get out of health care reform, what's in it for them. And if he does that, and that isn't about vilifying any particular industry - and by the way, many of these industries have come to the table and are, in fact, supporting health care reform - if Obama can explain clearly in the fall, to the middle class, what's in it for them, we will get health care reform, and it will transform America.

CONAN: I'm sorry, let's go to Anna first, and we'll get back to you.

Ms. GREENBERG: I'm going to disagree slightly with Jon, in the sense that in order to explain to middleclass folks who have insurance what they're going to get out of it personally, it's a deal with the insurance companies. Because you have 80 percent of people who have insurance, and they are, for the most part, enraged by the practices that are engaged in that they deal with every time they have a claim or every time something that their doctor tells them they need, a test they need, ends up getting not covered.

The only way you can tell people who, you know, already have insurance that they think is basically okay that they're going to get something out of this is reforming the practices of health insurance companies. It's not necessarily linked directly to greed, though I think it is at least indirectly related to greed, but certainly you can make the case for reforming the way the health insurance industry works, and I think that's a critical piece of this debate, and you'll actually see that President Obama talks about that a lot when he talks about health care reform.

CONAN: Jack White.

Mr. WHITE: Quick point. It is true that some of the big players in this industry have been brought to and are now supporting, but at what cost? We've had reports in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago, and it's also been pointed out by former Labor Secretary Bob Reich, that they may have cut a behind-the-scenes deal with the pharmaceutical company in exchange for supporting health care reform, that the pharmaceutical industry has been able to thwart the idea that the government would negotiate the prices of drugs on a big scale.

If that's the case, if that's true - and we don't really know whether it's true, but if it's true - that's a huge bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry. I'm not sure that that's one of the prices to pay that people thought that they were going to have to pay. And secondly, I don't think that they thought they were going to see this administration involve itself in the behind-closed-door deals, smoke room with lobbyists like Billy Tauzin, who's the head of the pharmaceutical…

CONAN: Those are now smoke-free rooms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Well, I'm sure if they are if Tauzin is back.

CONAN: And maybe Obama.

Mr. WHITE: Or the president.


CONAN: Farrell, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.


CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Bob in Winona, New Jersey.

BOB (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. As I said to the person who took the call, I really think that Obama needs to see the light at this stage. If I'm going to give him any kind of advice, it's to compromise.

The good senator from Connecticut said it this morning, I believe, or yesterday - and obviously he's a middle-of-the-road guy, but he knows what he's saying. He's speaking for a lot of folks. If he's going to get anything done and avoid the hurt that he's already taken, and he's taken a big hit, he needs to compromise, and the main deal on this compromise is to give up the public plan.

CONAN: You're speaking of Joe Lieberman, and a lot of progressives would not say he's the good senator from Connecticut, but anyway, is compromise the way up, Jon?

Mr. COWAN: There is not a single example in American history in which we didn't achieve something big by bringing a lot of people to the table. I mean, here is - and this may be something that frustrates progressives at times - but there isn't a naturally occurring liberal majority in the United States.

In the last century, when we got big things done like Social Security and Medicare and so on, we had to reach both across the aisle to moderate Republicans, and we had to work with very conservative, reactionary Southern Democrats.

Today, the Democratic Party, if it's going to get big things done, has to reach all the way left - from where I grew up in Santa Monica - to all the way to where Max Baucus lives in Montana. If we can build that kind of a coalition, and coalitions do involve principle compromise, we can actually get big things done like health care reform.

Last point on this. I would use the word compromise very, very judiciously here. What is on the table and already agreed to by virtually every Democrat are historic reforms that would change the way - insurance industry reforms, as Anna said - that would change the way, the fundamental American experience of health-care coverage, bring down costs and cover the uninsured.

CONAN: Catherine(ph) in California echoes Bob's point. I agree strongly with the components of Obama's plan. I still agree, but I'm frustrated with Obama not selling it strongly. However, at this point, it might be good to find a middle ground to get it passed with a bipartisan government. It's all about baby steps.

I find the process tedious and frustrating. It's unfortunate that a foot in the door with a watered-down plan may be the only possibility. And Jack White, you would disagree.

Mr. WHITE: Two quick points. One is I agree that making it possible for all Americans, regardless of pre-existing conditions, to have health insurance would be a major step. However, what we're leaving out, what we really haven't discussed here is one of the reasons that Obama has pushed health care is because of its effects on the long-term health of the economy.

If you don't have proposals in there for limiting the costs of health insurance and the health-care system overall, he won't have achieved one of his big goals. This is a part of the argument that I don't think he can afford to drop at this point, because it's not simply about making sure everybody is covered. It's also about controlling costs.

CONAN: Bob, thank you.

BOB: Okay. There are other ways to control costs, though, by the way.

CONAN: There might be, but this is the one that people seem to be arguing about at the moment, anyway.

BOB: Okay.

CONAN: Thank you. Here's an email that's from Wanda. President Obama has failed to provide details in a proactive way about what he wants to see from health care. A concrete pamphlet should be mailed out to every citizen with details - I think probably a concrete position paper is what she means - and the public option must remain. President Obama is being too much of a nice, compromising guy. We have him in the White House and have a Democratic majority in the Senate and the House. Hello? What is the problem? And Anna Greenberg?

Ms. GREENBERG: To be fair to the president, he has not set out concrete - he set out broad principles but not concrete policy ideas because he has been trying not to close off options for some kind of plan to come through Congress. And I would be clear that he has shown every willingness to compromise.

In fact, Rahm Emanuel, you know, a month ago floated the idea of not doing the public option and got vilified by the left, but the point is there's never been any indication that the Obama administration is going to refuse to compromise, even on the public option.

I think that if we're thinking about going forward and how to advance this debate, if Democrats don't come back in September and, in fairly short order, produce, you know, a plan that can be voted on that can then be sold primarily by the president, because he is the person who has the power to do it, I think we've got big problems.

I think he's been hamstrung by not having something to sell. So I think it's a little bit unfair to suggest that he should have been out there selling something concretely when there wasn't something to sell. But I think that, you know, Max Baucus and others are going to have to come back and produce something, and it's going to - some kind of - you know, and vote on it and have something to actually sort of put out there, even if it's not, you know, perfect.

CONAN: How did the president, whose campaign was brilliant at two things, one of which was troops on the ground and the other which was using the Internet, seem to get out-organized on both fronts on this issue, Anna?

Ms. GREENBERG: A couple things. First, campaigns are really different than governing. And so the kinds of on-the-ground mobilization you can do around elections in campaigns is very different than what you can do around issue advocacy. And the most effective issue advocacy, for better or worse, tends to be the kind of AstroTurf, paid advocacy, and that's what's driving what's happening in the town meetings. And so it's just much harder to do it, and you're seeing with reports about (unintelligible) we've had a harder time doing that.

Mr. COWAN: But Neal, let me say two things about that.

CONAN: Jon Cowan, go ahead.

Mr. COWAN: Yeah, one of them is I think we've gotten a little bit of a - when we're looking in the rear-view mirror of the Obama campaign, we're not seeing it clearly. The Obama campaign wasn't perfect. What made them brilliant was when they needed to adjust, they could adjust. So let's think back.

We had a dust-up over NAFTA. We had Bittergate, where he made those comments out in San Francisco. We had - Hillary was going to overtake him. I could go through the list of things. Every time the media counted Obama out, the team came back. It is way too early to count them out. In fact, I am certain they are going to pass health care reform, and this brings me to the second point.

I just want to go against the conventional wisdom here. It is not watered down what we're going to get. That really is a shame to think of it that way. Progressives are going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if we're not careful here. What we're on a threshold of - and we have support across the Democratic Party - would be historic reforms that would change the way health care and health care insurance is handled in the United States.

Mr. WHITE: Let me just mildly disagree with you about what happened during the campaign. I think that Obama's greatest asset was his opposition. I think that if he had run against the more skillful and somewhat younger opponent than John McCain, and then if he had run against somebody who had a vice presidential pick, other - more plausible than Sarah Palin, I think that the election might well have turned and had a different result.

And I think what you're seeing now - Republicans, too, learned from this campaign. I think one of the problems - to go back to an earlier question you asked Neal - is that the Obama administration may well have been a little bit overconfident. I think they may think that their supporters love them so much that they'll be with them no matter what.

And I think one of the things that I've been disappointed to see is I haven't seen these - the town halls overwhelmed with Obama supporters who, by the sheer numbers alone, could counter the effects of having the shouters on the other side.

CONAN: Well, what we hear is campaign fatigue. There was a huge effort to get the president elected, and now, eh.

Mr. WHITE: Well, there isn't any campaign fatigue on the other side who are showing up with arguments, and in some cases with handguns and semi-automatic…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, outside. Outside.

Mr. WHITE: Outside - but showing up in the meetings. Obama needs to get his troops to these events in order to also convince the media.

Mr. COWAN: And I agree. And look, here's what's brilliant about what Obama's doing, and we should give him a lot of credit for this. He is spending his political capital. He's not hoarding it. He came in on a high wave of popularity. And instead of sitting on it and hoping for a better day, he's actually using it now to deliver for the American people. That's going to happen on health care, whether the right wants it to or not.

CONAN: If health care happens, Anna Greenberg. Other than that, he's spend a lot of political capital for, well, not much.

Prof. GREENBERG: I actually agree with Jon. I think it's going to happen. I think failure's not an option. I think it would be a disaster in 2010 in terms of what's going to happen in the House and Senate, let alone the entire sort of verdict on this administration. I think it's going to happen.

CONAN: We're talking with Anna Greenberg, Jon Cowan and Jack White about how the president stumbled on health care and how he can get it back.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to John, John in Washington, D.C.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOHN: I think one of the big problems that Obama and his team made is buying into the premise that the Republicans have put out there. And by that I mean, you hear all these clips in the media. You hear Grassley and every other Republican say, look, the public at large is against this type of public option, government intrusion into health insurance, health care, et cetera. That's bogus.

There's a SurveyUSA poll just out that says when the question is posed to folks that says: Do you want the choice between a government option or keeping your private insurance? How important is that choice to you? Seventy-seven percent of Americans said they're having that choice is either extremely important or important. So taking the premise that the public is against this, that's just what the media does to sell advertising. That's just what the Republicans are doing to gin up a bunch of fear.

The Glenn Becks, the seven percenters, the 10 percent of the population that's rabidly against this thing - accepting the premise that these people represent a majority or even a substantial minority of people in America, that's a bad move from the jump.

Obama needs to basically say, look, get off this nonsense. The vast majority of Americans do support having a choice between private insurance and a public option. That's a fact, period. Read the numbers. When the question is posed the right way, that's the result that comes back before this thing, and we're going to push it through. (unintelligible)

CONAN: And I'm just going to turn that slightly around, John, and put it to Anna Greenberg, our pollster, and say: When the question is polled, do you worry about the government - complete government takeover? Do you worry about pulling the plug on granny? Do you - you know, those kinds of issues…

Prof. GREENBERG: Right.

CONAN: …those numbers are high, too.

Prof. GREENBERG: Well, but he's right. The caller's right. A majority of people support public option (unintelligible) from the beginning. And they support it for a variety of reasons, including having choice, bring down costs, covering the uninsured, a whole range of issues. But it also - it showed that it raises a lot of questions, like how to pay for it and how it's going to affect me directly.

And I think that that's an area where we have to do a better job of explaining to people how it's actually going to bring down your costs. Because I think, frankly, in a short run, it's going to hard to demonstrate how it's going to bring down people's individual costs. So, absolutely…

CONAN: Without doing what Jack said, tie it to the economy.

Prof. GREENBERG: Right. But that's a - that's a macro, long-term, you know, argument. That's why I think it's actually the kinds of policies - the changes that Jon talked about around how insurance companies treat people is critical to this, so people can understand how it's going to affect them personally. But as a starting point, a majority support the public option.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get an email finally in from Patrick in Tucson. Politics, he writes, is the art of compromise. Good negotiating tactics dictate you begin by asking for everything you want, then compromise down to what you can accept, so your opponent can claim victory, too. Bad tactics are what the Obama administration has pursued, beginning by giving away everything except for your minimum. At the beginning, universal health care is off the table, so that the only way the Republicans can claim any kind of victory - small victory - is to completely eviscerate your proposal.

Should the - Jack, the Democrats are arguing for a single payer, and then bargain their way down?

Mr. WHITE: I'm actually an advocate of shoving it down their throats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: In situations like this, when you actually potentially have the votes, and you may never have them again, I think all the changes that need to be made and all of the things that the Obama administration called for in the beginning ought to be on the table, ought to be supported.

If in the end you do have to give something up in order to achieve the kind of reforms that Jon talked about earlier - and as I said, I agree that having universal coverage would be a big deal - then so be it. But don't give it away before you have to.

CONAN: But, Jon Cowan, you're asking people to vote for that who are going to be up for election in 2010 and 2012.

Mr. COWAN: That's absolutely right. There - while there may be public support for the option, according to many members of Congress, there actually isn't sufficient congressional support even within the Democratic Party. That's important to note, because it could end up being that what President Obama called a sliver of reform could bring down the whole thing, and that would be tragic. There's something I want to disagree with the emailer, Patrick.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COWAN: We are getting 90 percent of what Obama asked for. We're going to get huge subsidies for the uninsured. We're going to get an individual mandate. We're going to get guaranteed issue. We're going to get community rating -antiseptic terms, but things that will transform health care for most Americans.

CONAN: Thank you all very much. And again, we will be checking in soon with the opposition about their tactics and how they hope to get what they want out of this deal. But our thanks to Jack White of TheRoot.com, Jon Cowan, president and cofounder of Third Way, and Anna Greenberg, senior vice president and principal at Greenberg Quinlan and Rosner, a Democratic pollster.

Coming up, a preview of the expected CIA abuse report: mock executions, power drills, other details - is it a prelude to a prosecution? Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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