Stand back, ladies and gentlemen, it appears that the fight for… um, whatever… is starting.  Appearing at a photo op town-hall meeting with Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada today, President Obama “made a fervent pitch” for passing a healthcare reform bill — and for the so-called summit with Republican and Democratic members of Congress next week.

As Lindsay Beyerstein concisely pointed out out two weeks ago, a key reason for announcing the summit was to provide “a delaying tactic… while Congressional Democrats wheel and deal furiously behind the scenes,” giving Obama the appearance of taking the political initiative while Pelosi, Reid, et al. were busy trying to push the sausage of healthcare reform through the legislative meat grinder.

But it’s also an intentional PR trap in the wake of Obama’s successful recent Q&A with GOP House members. A New York Times article this morning sums up the strategy behind bringing a specific proposal before the summit:

“It will be a reconciliation bill,” one Democratic aide said. “If Republicans don’t come with any substantial offers, this is what we would do.

And, of course, we all know how likely it is that the Republicans will screw things up by actually offering a substantial proposal.  They can’t help themselves, and Obama knows it:

The Republicans say they’ve got a better way of doing it. So I want them to put it on the table — (applause) — because as I told them … I’m not an unreasonable guy. (Laughter.) If you show me that you can do the things we just talked about — protect people from insurance problems, make sure that the costs are controlled, and people who don’t have health insurance are covered — and you can do it cheaper than me, then why wouldn’t I do that? I’ll just grab your idea and say, great, and take all the credit. I’d be happy to do it. (Applause.)

So show me what you got. But don’t let the American people go another year, another 10 years, another 20 years without health insurance reform in this country. (Applause.)

Whatever political flaws he’s shown in the past year — and we’re all too painfully familiar with them — Obama is good at making himself seem like the reasonable alternative to Republicans’ ideological rigidity.  So, it’s not a bad idea to set up a public reminder just before Congress takes action.

I mean, uhh… they are going to take action, right?  Right?

Personally, I think so.  The actual proposal may be rather timid at first glance, but even if that is unsatisfactory, there’s a rare opening for progressive public opinion to be heard to make it better.  In a bit of kabuki we’ve seen before, the White House is saying they’ll back a public option if Harry Reid thinks a majority of the Senate will support one, and Reid is suggesting that he’ll push for one if the Obama administration will back him up.

So, what’s needed now is a push from the rabble (as in, us) to call both bluffs at the same time.  If Harry Reid can read his poll numbers, he knows how much (or, to be more accurate, how little) rhetorical support for a vaporware public option does for his prospects of survival.  And a few months ago, Tom Harkin said there were 52 solid Democratic votes in the Senate for a public option.  Perhaps we should ask him now for those 52 names, and figure out how to push those that are wavering?

The most effective path in terms of both politics and policy has been obvious for months now.  All they need is the courage to do it.  If Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress play this right (for once), next week’s public dialogue might be a tool to provide that courage.