The Campaign Spot

Why Should Obama Take House Progressives at Their Word?

A few moments ago, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered an answer — I don’t know if it’s an honest answer, but it’s an answer — on how seriously President Obama takes threats from the House Progressive Caucus that if health-care legislation doesn’t include the public option, they’ll vote no. Gibbs said the president “takes them at their word.”

If the 83 or so liberal House Democrats mean it, that means passage of the bill would rely on the Blue Dogs, a few Democrats who are in neither wing of their party, and any House Republicans eager to rescue President Obama and his signature agenda item from going down in flames. Tough to get 218 votes out of those three groups.

But why should the president take their “veto threat” seriously? If their choices are a health-care reform bill without the public option or no health-care reform bill, will they really choose the latter option? They know that a failure to get something passed would be a body blow to Obama’s teetering approval rating, right? They know that it would launch a thousand premature political obituaries. They know that it would probably start serious talk about a Democratic primary challenge in 2012. And they know that there’s a risk that many grassroots Democrats would look at their party’s inability to pass legislation with 59 senators, 256 House members, and control of the White House and decide that political activism is a waste of time.

Maybe they mean it; Gibbs’s answer suggests Obama will not doubt their pledges publicly. But sometime this fall, that stand may be tested.

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