Both President Obama’s health care plan and his presidency are going down the toilet.
This is well, and right, and just as it should be.
Obama is turning out to be a disastrous president, wholly unsuited for the times and our national and global challenges, and his job approval ratings reflect this.
In Obama, we get all the corporate toadying of the last Democratic president, along with an even greater unwillingness than Clinton – and who would’ve thought that was possible – to name names, call out enemies, and throw a freakin’ punch every other year or so. (We’re also getting a continuation of the civil rights and civil liberties policies of Dick Cheney, as an extra added bonus, but that’s another story.) What makes it even more astonishing this time around, however, is that we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. There is apparently absolutely no bottom – as the events of recent weeks have reconfirmed – to the pit of vicious lies, brutal tactics, and democracy-demolishing antics of which regressives will avail themselves in their practice of contemporary American politics. In addition to not being prepared for that, Barack Obama is still seemingly unable to raise his voice a decibel or two against the very people who are helping him to destroy his own presidency. Indeed, he is negotiating ‘bipartisan’ (read: total capitulation) deals with them, even as they relentlessly trash him before a national audience.
Is this president so deluded that he believes there are limitations on what the right will do not only to the republic, for which Obama seems to have only passing regard, but also to his presidency, for which we might imagine he would have at least some concern? Does the Kumbaya Kid think that regressives won’t seek to annihilate him every bit as much as they did Bill Clinton, even as they are obsessing at this very moment over harebrained conspiracy stories challenging his very legal right to be president, his very citizenship? Does this guy who seems to want, more than anything, for everyone just to be happy and sing along in the same key, still really believe in bipartisanship, at the very moment when the very people with whom he is negotiating are reinforcing the most absurd and inflammatory lies asserting the elder-cide intentions of his health-care bill?
Sorry. Did I say “his health-care bill”? Problem number one here is that there’s no such thing. As in just about everything else of consequence this administration has been involved in, he seems quite content to simply defer to Congress and allow the sausage-making process on the Hill to generate precisely the policy abomination one might expect, with all the political liabilities we’ve come to know and love from such a dispiriting collection of 535 (minus two or three) moral midgets.
Sorry. Did I say “defer to Congress”? Looks like I goofed again. What this really means – and this is problem number two – is deferring to a select group of members of Congress. In particular, conservative Democrats and supposedly moderate Republicans (you know, like fuel-efficient Hummers). Right now, for example, probably the two most important actors in America on the healthcare question are Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley. Both have received massive campaign contributions from the industries which have most at stake in this legislation. No doubt, however, that’s entirely a coincidence. What they are doing right now, and what Obama is allowing them to do, is nothing less than neutering any serious aspects of healthcare reform. In the end, having succeeded at doing that, and being the tail that wags the entire dog of this 300 million person country, Grassley won’t even vote for the bill, nor will any Republican. As in the stimulus bill, Obama continues to allow legislation to be murdered by a thousand cuts. All in the name of some bipartisanship god he has taken to worshiping, even though none of the knife-wielders will be around to go anywhere near the stinking corpse they’ve created when it’s eventually tossed up on the congressional slab for a vote. Seems pretty nutty to me, but I guess when you stop and think about it, Obama’s definition of bipartisan participation in the legislative process really does make sense after all: Republicans murder the bill, then Democrats vote for it. Everybody gets to play a part. Everybody contributes.
From what can be gathered so far, the legislation will accomplish very little in terms of real reform, will diminish existing health-care programs, will nevertheless still exacerbate the explosion of national debt, and will not even begin to kick in until 2013. Hey, for all the good this will do Americans, why not just complete the job and have all the benefits go to people living in Kuala Lumpur?
Will healthcare be universal in America, bringing this country into line with the standards of what every other industrialized democracy has practiced for the better part of a century? No. Will we massively increase the amount of actual health care we provide while eliminating the incredible bloat in costs of our predatory, special-interest oriented system by adopting the obvious no-brainer choice of the single-payer model? Fat chance. Will a real public option even be created, which might instantly show up the incredible profiteering and waste in the insurance industry, while simultaneously giving lie to the endless rhetoric about private sector efficiency and government bungling? No, there won’t (but President Obama wants you to know he appreciates your asking). The Capitulation Administration signaled this week that it is giving up on that as well. Because of Republican opposition, of course. You remember those guys don’t you? The folks who have such small minorities in Congress that they can’t even muster forty percent of Senate votes to block consideration of legislation by filibuster?
That’s who Obama is caving to. That’s who’s in charge. It seems that we regular folks are in the process of getting a fresh education about the way American politics really works. Evidently, there’s a new algorithm I wasn’t aware of. It goes like this: When Republicans control Congress and the White House, they rule. When Democrats control Congress and the White House… Republicans still rule. Okay. Well at least we know how it works. And it’s not necessarily all bad news, either. No point in fussing with those messy elections anymore!
Meanwhile, one needn’t dig deep into the bowels of the thousands of pages of legalese contained within the five separate health-care proposals now making their way through Congress in order to figure out whether they contain good news or not. You can tell a lot about somebody or something just by the company they keep. Suffice it to say that both the insurance and pharmaceutical industries are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars running ads on television in favor of healthcare “reform”. I can hardly think of a handier or more pure litmus test for determining whether this is good legislation or not. If those guys are for it, and especially if they’re spending millions to make it happen, it’s a very safe bet that I’m against it. And if those industries are for it, it’s a very safe bet that the deal is they get rich and we get nothing. Except maybe poor. And sick.
The pharmaceutical ads are especially galling, proving that there really is nothing immoral enough to be excluded from the discourse of American politics. These spots feature the two actors who portrayed Harry and Louise – the very same marionettes who whored themselves back in 1993 and got a paycheck in exchange for making sure that tens of millions of Americans would be denied health care in every year since then. Now they’re back, this time advocating for legislation rather than against it, and sanctimoniously telling us that “it’s about time” that “we may finally get healthcare reform”. When “Sally” – slayer of American healthcare for a few shekels of blood money – righteously intones that, “with a little more cooperation, a little less politics, and we can get the job done this time”, I want to reach into the television and detach her head from the rest of her. She certainly isn’t making any use of it. I’d go for the heart, but that seems to have been removed long ago. Is there some reason that these people haven’t been taken out back and shot? And, failing that, do they have some sort of new, special, high-tech pillows that allow folks like this to sleep at night despite a 40,000 ton conscience crushing down on their skulls?
Now why in the world would the insurance and pharmaceutical industries be running ads in favor of healthcare reform? I’m just thinking out loud here, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the deals that a certain Barack Obama has cut with them behind the scenes, promising to limit to pathetically minimal amounts any future inhibitions on the trough-gorging to which they’ve grown well accustomed. In agreements which the New York Times has delicately characterized as “potentially at odds with the president’s rhetoric”, Obama has bought the support of these industries for a pittance. At least, that is, a pittance of his capital. The true costs will continue to fall on tens of millions of Americans with no or lousy healthcare, including the tens of thousands who die each year because of that simple fact. In exchange for their political support, our ‘socialist’ president secretly promised the pharmaceutical and insurance industries that their costs under any new legislation would be capped at $80 and $155 billion, respectively, over ten years time. In short – nickels and dimes.
One might be excused for beginning to get the feeling that what Obama really wants from healthcare reform is simply to be able to say that he did it. No matter that there is almost no reform in his healthcare reform legislation. No matter that he doesn’t even have his own proposal, but is deferring to the worst elements of a legislative body that is a wholly owned subsidiary of American corporate interests. No matter that whatever little effect the legislation will have won’t even begin to be seen for another four years, and then will be phased in after that, over yet another period of several years. And no matter that, even after the law goes into effect, this country will continue to suffer from all the major maladies of a system designed principally to provide profits for a few, rather than healthcare for all.
What continues to astonish me, however, is what passes for political calculus in the White House these days. I never assumed that Obama would necessarily be any different from Bill Clinton, in the sense that he might actually have a set of good progressive politics or that he might actually give a damn about the American public. No disappointment there (although did he have to be even worse than that, more like Bush than Clinton?). However, I always assume that almost all politicians are completely consumed by the one thing that Clinton was ever truly passionate about: self-interest.
But, even purely from that narrowest of perspectives, does the Obama team actually believe that their strategy is helping their guy politically? Do they really like the way that their failure to articulate a plan, or even a set of fundamental principles, has worked out in terms of shaping the debate over healthcare? Is it really their belief that they can go to the voters in 2012 and win their hearts with a nothingburger healthcare plan, passed three years prior, and due to fully kick in three years hence? I hate more than a root canal sans novocaine to sound like one of the regressives whom I so very much loathe, but if this is the level of political sophistication to be found in the Obama White House, then, no, as a matter of fact, I really don’t want this clown negotiating with Vladimir Putin.
Barack Obama has given us the worst of all worlds. Passage of a healthcare reform bill – even something barely remotely worthy of the name – now seems like a dubious proposition. If it does pass, it won’t be worth squat. Meanwhile, all the ugliest and most deceitful tactics of regressive politics have floated to the surface in the cesspool of American political discourse, weakly countered at best by a White House that could make SpongeBob SquarePants look like the love child of Genghis Khan and Joseph Stalin by comparison, and is so lame that it couldn’t anticipate and inoculate against these assaults that any fool who wasn’t entirely comatose over the last three decades could plainly see were coming. Worst of all, when the smoke finally clears, this debacle will entail a massive discrediting of so-called liberalism, and a severe imperiling of the Democratic Party (not that it much matters) in the next two election cycles. Think about that for a second. How absolutely, utterly, magnificently inept does one have to be to have revived the hopes of the GOP, a mere 200 days after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left office? Not just any idiot could pull off a stunt that big, I tell ya. A job like that requires a world-class moron.
What Obama should have done is simple, and therefore all the more astonishing that they missed it. First off, he should have formulated a serious plan (perhaps in faux negotiations with certain key congressional leaders, to make them feel powerful and included, perhaps not), and stuck with it. At the very least, he should have articulated three or four non-negotiable key principles that he demanded from any healthcare legislation. These should have revolved around ideas that are simple to grasp and clearly beneficial to non-elite Americans. He should have sold that plan at big staged events, such as televised addresses to both houses of Congress – rather than these pathetic press conferences he keeps giving, where the press can ask any question they want, and where an unscripted Professor Wonk rambles out ten minute answers, chock full of pauses and clauses, guaranteed to anesthetize his audience or divert their attention entirely, to another subject altogether (can you say “Henry Lewis Gates”?).
He should have named enemies, right from the beginning. He should have warned Americans about what these people would do in the ensuing weeks and months. And he should have called them out on it, angrily and by name, when they in fact did it. When they started lying and frightening senior citizens in order to protect their legalized scams from reform, he should have slugged them so hard they were knocked on their fat corporate asses, never to rise again. He should’ve called them greedy, selfish, treasonous traitors who are willing to lie and steal to further enrich their bloated selves, while tens of thousands of Americans die every year from lack of medical care.
Above all, what Obama should have done was shown some passion. The unflappable conciliatory professor act has got to go. Here’s a newsflash (evidently) for the Obama White House: If the president has any desire to sell his policies, he’s got to sell his policies. If he wants to lead, he has to lead. And if he wants our support, he’s got to tell us why this is important. With juice. Mr. Folksy isn’t getting it – not by a long shot.
Finally, Obama should’ve jammed his plan down the throats of Congress, where – though you’d never know it – his party commands massive and filibuster-proof majorities. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t think the nineteenth century model of the presidency is particularly appropriate here in the twenty-first. We got Social Security and the rest of the New Deal programs because Franklin Roosevelt twisted arms on Capitol Hill. We got Medicare and Medicaid and civil rights because Lyndon Johnson nearly pulled those arms out of their sockets, jamming his bills through a reluctant Congress by means of big carrots, bigger sticks, and razor-sharp strategy.
What did Millard Fillmore get? James Buchanan? If you can’t remember, don’t worry – it doesn’t mean that you’re deficient as a student of American history. It just means that they didn’t get anything worth remembering. Why is it that, in our time, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush get everything they want from Congress, while Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – even after they’ve completely sold out to Wall Street, and even when they have massive majorities in Congress – wind up as if they’re the main source of entertainment for the fellas on Cell Block D? Neither FDR nor Harry Truman nor Lyndon Johnson would recognize the Democratic Party anymore. Unless they inadvertently mistook it for a squashed bug in the foyer of the GOP’s headquarters.
Having lived through the incredibly dismal Clinton era, I’m not exactly surprised to have another Democratic president whose only real constituents can be found in corporate boardrooms. I am, however, shocked to have one who seemingly learned nothing from the experience of the Clinton years, who appears to be even more conciliatory than the foolish “Please sir, may I have another?” Clinton himself was, and who apparently lacks any real instinct even for political self-preservation.
So I have to ask: Hey, Barack. How’s this working out for you? In eight months time you’ve squandered a massive and historic opportunity. You’ve resuscitated a murderously evil political party that, with a little shove in the right direction, might instead have been buried dead forever. You’ve let just about anybody say just about anything regarding you and your policies, without consequence. People are running around claiming that you’re gonna kill grannies, and millions believe them. You’re being pilloried for the bogus failures of the British healthcare system, and your mealy-mouthed-room-temperature-yesterday’s-leftover-oatmeal proposal – such that you even have one – doesn’t even bear the slightest resemblance to the NHS.
You’ve produced nothing of consequence in your Hundred Days, nor even in two hundred. Historians will not mention you in the same breath as FDR, but rather right alongside the wondrous Mr. Fillmore. You’ve responded to epic crises with half-measures that have produced quarter-results. In the short period of your presidency, your job approval ratings have fallen from the high sixties to the low fifties. In addition to those numbers beginning to look a lot like the guy with a cane walking onto your stage, they represent twice the drop an idiot named George W. Bush sustained during his first eight months in office. Maybe because he accomplished far more in that time. Far more (horrid though it was), as a matter of fact, than you are likely to do in four years, at the rate you’re going. Far more, even with a split Congress. How about that, Brother Barack? You’re getting your ass kicked by the worst president in all of American history.
So, dude, how’s this working out for you?
For me? Not so good. I was hoping for something else. Know what I mean?
I will say, however, that you seem to be a very, very nice young man. Yes, yes – very nice indeed. Definitely.
So much so that I give you my word: If I ever want someone for my president who is so nice that he even lets vicious political savages tear him to shreds while they’re wrecking the country at the same time…
I promise that you’ll have my vote.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.