White House signals it is ready to give up the government-run insurance option.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 17 2009 6:40 AM

Bye-Bye Public Option

The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsboxlead with the Obama administration giving its strongest signal yet that it may be ready to drop the idea of a government-run insurance option to compete with private companies as part of health care reform. On the Sunday talk show circuit, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the so-called public option is "not the essential element" of the overhaul efforts, while White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama "will be satisfied" if there is "choice and competition" in the private insurance market.

The Los Angeles Timesfronts the latest developments in the health care debate but leads with a look at how the purported death of Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud has opened up a "window of opportunity that neither Pakistan nor the United States can afford to neglect." With the Taliban's structure in disarray as commanders fight to take Mahsud's place, there is a great temporary opportunity to track down and kill other top Taliban leaders. That would not only help weaken the Taliban, but also make al-Qaida more vulnerable. USA Todayleads with a new poll that shows 57 percent of Americans think the $787 billion stimulus package hasn't had any impact on the economy or has made it worse. The poll shows how the White House is fighting an uphill battle in trying to convince Americans that things would have been worse without the stimulus package.


White House officials continued to insist that Obama isn't abandoning a government-run health insurance plan. But the fact that two top administration officials hinted that it isn't considered essential to the overall efforts should hardly be considered surprising considering that Obama himself said as much at a town-hall meeting in Colorado. The public option "is not the entirety of health care reform," Obama said after defending the idea. "This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it." This openness to other options, including insurance exchanges and cooperatives, is a big win for the insurance industry and could remove one of the biggest objections to health care overhaul since many had seized on it to claim that government wants to take over health care. "The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for the public option," said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, one of the key health care negotiators who has been a champion of the co-op idea.

Although this willingness to drop the public option could win the administration some Republican support, it also risks angering liberal Democrats. Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia said that a public option "is the only proven way to guarantee that all consumers have affordable, meaningful and accountable options available in the health insurance marketplace." Indeed, the WSJ states that while the competition that co-ops would bring to the market might help bring down prices, it's unlikely that they "would bring prices down as significantly as the government could." The LAT says that if Obama ends up dropping the public option it would mark "at least the second time he's made major concessions to powerful stakeholders in the healthcare debate." Earlier, the White Hosue made a deal with the nation's main drug lobby to cap the cost savings it expects from the industry at $80 billion in exchange for supporting the reform efforts.

The Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida have built up a strong, mutually beneficial relationship over the years. Al-Qaida helped train Taliban militants, and in exchange the Taliban gave al-Qaida a safe place to operate. Experts now contend that if more Taliban commanders are killed, it would leave al-Qaida exposed and vulnerable. Analysts insist these operations have to take place quickly since it's only a matter of time before the Taliban regroup. But it's unclear whether the Pakistani military is ready to adopt such an aggressive strategy.

In a front-page dispatch from Afghanistan, the NYT notes that while President Hamid Karzai is largely expected to win re-election this week that could change if Taliban intimidation keeps many of his fellow Pashtuns from casting a ballot. Support from Pashtuns was crucial to Karzai's victory five years ago, when the Taliban largely stayed away and allowed voting to continue. Making matters worse for Karzai, many villagers have to walk far if they decide to ignore threats and cast a ballot. Afghan officials said many places across Helmand Province are simply not safe enough to set up polling places.

The WP's Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes an extensive piece looking into the "humiliating" firing of Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, earlier this year, and what it says about the Obama administration's approach to the war, as well as the changing culture in the Pentagon. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to persuade McKiernan to resign, but he refused. A mere two weeks later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told him to pack his bags, marking the first time that a wartime theater commander was fired since 1951. McKiernan had a distinguished 37-year career, but spent little time at the Pentagon and wasn't really well-versed in the intricate Washington parlor games. At the same time, he never built good relationships with Afghan leaders. Officials say that his shortcomings became even more evident with the rise of Gen. David Petraeus, who was particularly adept not only at directing troops but also at talking to lawmakers and Pentagon leaders. Suddenly, it wasn't enough to just be a good military leader, a commander also "had to be adroit at international politics," and know how to deal with the media, an official explained. For his part, McKiernan contends he never got the support he needed from Washington.

The LAT fronts news that the La Brea fire that has burned more than 87,000 acres in Santa Barbara County was apparently "the first major wildfire in the state caused by drug traffickers." Authorities say the fire was sparked by flames from a cooking fire in an illegal marijuana farm, one of many that are increasingly cropping up in California's vast forests. Officials believe the farm was operated by a Mexican drug organization.

In the WP's op-ed page, two former Baltimore City police officers urge the federal government to step away from the drug war to allow cities and states to set their own drug policies. Right now, "prohibition on drugs leads to unregulated, and often violent, public drug dealing," which claims the lives of too many cops. Street-corner drug dealers can single-handedly turn a peaceful neighborhood into a violent one, but their threat could be eliminated if drug manufacturing and distribution were regulated. "Working people could sit on stoops, misguided youths wouldn't look up to criminals as role models, our overflowing prisons could hold real criminals, and—most important to us—more police officers wouldn't have to die."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.



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