WASHINGTON -- Pay no attention to the cable news talking heads behind the curtain; the White House was trying Wednesday to signal to progressive allies that healthcare reform is still on track.
President Obama used the strongest language out of anyone in the administration, telling a conference call organized by liberal clergy that some opponents of reform "are, frankly, bearing false witness." He attacked the claims that reform would set up death panels: "That is just an extraordinary lie." Ticking off a few more of the bogus charges about the legislation that Congress is considering, Obama said the misinformation was part of a deliberate campaign. "These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation, and that is to look out for each other," he said.
That seemed to signal the administration was ready to fight harder than it has so far, even as the White House sends some mixed signals on whether it will stop trying to get Republicans to sign onto a reform proposal.
The president wasn't the only one trying to rally his base. His chief domestic policy advisor, Melody Barnes, told the same call just before Obama dialed in that the administration still wants a public insurance option in the reform proposals. "At this point, [Obama] thinks the public option seems like the best one to lower costs and increase competition," she said.
Earlier in the day, press secretary Robert Gibbs had pushed back for the second day in a row on reports that the administration was giving up on the public plan. "The president believes we have to have choice and competition," Gibbs told reporters. "In a private insurance market where people are entering, they have to have the ability to choose among insurers that will drive down their costs and improve their quality. His preference is for a public option. If there are others that have ideas about how we can institute choice and competition, he's happy to look at those."
None of the language about the public option was quite as definitive as the words Obama used to target the opposition, though, which might not help quell discontent among the Democratic base. The White House outreach to liberals will continue Thursday, when Obama joins another mass conference call with members of Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee offshoot that absorbed much of the grassroots elements of his 2008 campaign. Expect him to hear a few questions about his commitment to the public option, but also expect him to ask his most loyal supporters for some help getting the bill passed.