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4:32 PM, Aug 17, 2009 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Over the weekend, the Obama administration backed away from liberal efforts to include the "public option," i.e., a government-run insurance program open to all Americans, in prospective congressional health care legislation. The shift was probably a response to the emerging public opposition to ObamaCare.

The problem is that this concession to the center has enraged influential liberals, including Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, and Russ Feingold. So what did the White House do? It told a friendly reporter that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "misspoke", and that the president is four-square behind the public option, reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Mickey Kaus eviscerates this spin here.

Obama is trapped. He needs both the left and the center to pass his bill, but satisfying one side endangers his relationship with the other. His conundrum brought to mind this passage from Andrew Ferguson, written shortly after the election:

By positioning himself as the third way between two absurd alternatives that no one favors, Obama has persuaded voters of his reasonableness and moderation; and thus of his ability to get things done. That illusory advantage will go poof soon enough, though. Think about his third way in education reform. There he sits, or so he says, nobly perched between the (nonexistent) more-money and more-reform factions. President Bush, if I can mention the unmentionable, thought he was putting himself in the same position in 2001. He managed to bring his "conservative reformers" together with liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy, water carrier for the educational establishment. Together they produced a complicated and expensive set of reforms that appeared to lasso every warring faction into a united effort.

The unity didn't last long, as you've probably noticed, though in a way, I suppose, No Child Left Behind did prove a unifying force: When put into practice, it managed to frustrate and anger nearly every interested party--for contradictory and irreconcilable reasons. When the law lapses next year, President Obama will find himself smack in the middle of these crosswires, where every move touches off an explosion, often on time-release, set to blow when you least expect it. If we're lucky he won't go back to blaming criminal CEOs and sleazy lobbyists. But we probably won't be lucky.

Ferguson is right; we aren't lucky. At a recent town hall, Obama said the argument over health care reform is -- this is not a joke -- "a contest between hope and fear."