By Alexander Bolton - 08/24/09 06:59 AM EDT
Dean’s strong advocacy for creating a broad government-run health insurance program, known as the public option, has become a headache for Obama while at the same time giving liberals a powerful spokesman with national credibility.
“Howard Dean has been the bully pulpit for the grass roots, expressing what the majority of Americans across the country are feeling but using his profile to make it newsworthy,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a liberal activist group that supports the public option.
“It might have been a blessing in disguise that Howard Dean was not brought into the admin because it has allowed him to be bully pulpit for the overwhelming majority of American people who support the public option.”
Soon after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a television interview that the public option is “not the essential element” of healthcare reform, Dean took a strong opposing stance.
“You can't really do health reform without it," Dean said of the public option in a television interview Monday, calling a major government role “the entirety of healthcare reform.” His comment spearheaded a week of liberal criticism of the administration’s mixed messages on healthcare reform. (Obama insisted on Thursday that his position on the public option has not changed and described it as “a good idea” but “not the only aspect.”)
His potential to torpedo the administration’s signature domestic proposal is somewhat ironic given Obama’s efforts to enlist potential adversaries in his administration rather than face their wrath.
Dean was once considered a candidate for secretary of Health and Human Services. Obama passed him over while appointing former rivals and potential adversaries to Cabinet posts. He named his primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State and asked Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a longtime critic of Democratic fiscal policy, to serve as secretary of Commerce.
Dean’s friends and former advisers privately blamed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for the snub, recalling the bitter feud between the two over how to spend party funds when Dean was Democratic National Committee chairman and Emanuel headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“It was a mistake not to have brought Dean in; he’s a doctor, he’s smart, he’s a good organizer, he might have been able to be an effective insider,” said Al Felzenberg, a presidential scholar who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Felzenberg noted that discontented liberals helped cut short the administrations of former Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and Dean could do the same to Obama.
“If the Daily Kos people weigh in, they could make life hard for Obama,” Felzenberg said in reference to an influential liberal website.
Dean’s allies say he is motivated by his extensive healthcare experience and his desire to improve the system, not by old grudges.
But some analysts note that Dean has raised his profile by taking on Obama.
“Since leaving the chairmanship of the party he has been looking for a niche for himself,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “He’s not a man who, having once enjoyed public acclaim and attention, is willing to give it up very easily.”
Ross said that Dean’s outspoken role in the health reform debate “allows him to become a spokesperson for a very important element in the Democratic Party and gives him an enormous bargaining chip with the president."
“In a sense Dean becomes an antagonist of the president, and anyone who has a high-profile antagonist of the president is going to get a lot of attention. This is not a blogger somewhere; [Dean] occupies an exalted position that is made more exalted by him taking on the present.”
Obama’s ambiguous messaging on healthcare reform has further irritated liberals who disagree with his economic recovery policy, which they view as overly favorable to Wall Street.
Obama may have been able to avoid criticism if he had appointed Dean or other prominent liberals to important posts within his administration.
“There’s no question that the Obama administration would be better served by having more strong progressives in the administration,” said Mike Lux, the president of Progressive Strategies, a political consulting firm. “Not only because of the progressive ideas they would bring to the table, but they would work better with progressive organizations outside Congress and progressives in Congress to get things done.”
Other liberals concede, however, that it would have been very difficult to give Dean a high-profile job in the administration given his rocky past relationship with Emanuel. They note that Obama has long made it a priority to avoid infighting among his advisers, earning the nickname “No Drama Obama” during the campaign.
Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, a coalition of liberal and labor groups, said: “Gov. Dean is speaking for a large part of the Democratic base who think the public option is such a strong part of healthcare reform.”
But Kirsch said that liberals would still be demanding the public option, even if Dean was not playing a leading role.
“There’s a large part of the country so fed up with private health insurance companies [that it does] not believe that regulating them will do enough to change the way how healthcare reform is provided so it is really affordable,” he said.