Obama’s Big Speech: Math Trumps Rhetoric

If Barack Obama had delivered his speech to Congress three months ago,  by now he might well be signing  health reform  into law. Ted Kennedy would have alive to supply the crucial senate vote to cut off any filibuster and put the Democrats over the top.

But three months ago Obama and his advisors were  eager to avoid the debacle suffered by Hillary Clinton’s health plan which, after months of secrecy, she presented to Congress in 1993. So the White House evolved the foolish plan of letting the Democrats in Congress draft the necessary laws.

This summer no less than five committees on Capitol Hill went to work. The contours of reform swiftly became murky, particularly since Obama offered scant leadership. Indeed it was unclear what precise plan he favored and he made the huge tactical mistake of discarding, right from the start, the “single payer” model  — based on the NHS or Canadian health insurance system – favored by the left.

As Vicente Navarro, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins and an advisor to Hilary Clinton back in 1993 accurately remarked on this site last week, Obama “needs single-payer to make his own proposal ‘respectable.’ (Keep in mind how Martin Luther King became the civil rights figure promoted by the establishment because, in the background, there was a Malcolm X threatening the establishment.) This was a major mistake made by Bill Clinton in 1993.  The historical function of the left in America has been to make the center ‘respectable.’ If there is no left alternative, the Obama proposals will become the ‘left’ proposal, and this will severely limit whatever reform he will finally be able to get.”

By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around Obama was heading into moderately serious political trouble. The ravings of the nutball  right were what caught the headlines but what no doubt bothered Obama’s political strategists was the growing disillusion of the progressive slice of the Democrats with Obama. The prophet of hope and change was selling them out on every front: escalating war in Afghanistan; billions  for bankers; and now on health reform Obama was surrendering without barely a twitch to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Unhappy with Bill Clinton in 1994, a lot of liberal Democrats sat out thse midterm elections and the Republicans swept into power in the Congress. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, was working for Clinton back then, and the memory is now doubt vivid in his mind.

Did Obama’s  high-stakes speech to Congress Wednesday night turn the tide? It was well written and elegantly delivered. Since columnists such as the liberal Maureen Dowd of the New York Times had been dumping on Obama for being a wimp, the speech writers gave him plenty of muscular flourishes: “Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action.”

The left was duly rewarded with a “public option”, albeit offered apologetically: “But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. Let me be clear – it would only be an option for those who don’t have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5% of Americans would sign up.”

Obama solemnly pledged that “ like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” It would also , he said, keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, “the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.”

This last was a point that would have resonated with many in his national audience, and Obama swept into his peroration, reading a letter from Ted Kennedy that had some in his audience in tears and reminding his audience that big government does have its virtues, because without it, “markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.”

Alas, math trumps rhetoric. The numbers are against the president.  Obama may have regained some political stature, but he doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to survive a filibuster and he and his staff has not  generated the requisite political ruthlessness to whip the Congressional Democrats into line.

The day after his speech Obama had Bluedog Democrats to the White House and they emerged, reemphasizing their obduracy. A White House without the ability to effectively twist arms, bribe the recalcitrant, threaten to break knees, is an institution shorn of a huge slice of its effective power. LBJ didn’t grab the headlines with stirring speeches on Medicare, or Food Stamps. He grabbed obstinate legislators by the lapels and smeared them with the honey of a promised dam, a judgeship, a broadcasting franchise; or he whacked them with a threat to pull a military base, cancel a highway project, nix the necessary patronage.

Despite the flexing of rhetorical muscles, Obama’s still a nice-guy president who still prates on about bipartisanship, even as the Republicans on Wednesday night sat on their hands, gave the president the finger and chortled as  one of their number, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out “You lie”, when Obama said correctly  that his plan wouldn’t offer services to illegal immigrants.   By so saying, of course, Obama was acknowledging that he had just lied when he declared at the start of his speech that adequate medical care is a basic human right. Are undocumented workers , who sustain America’s agriculture and much of its building industry, not humans, or humans without rights like the captives Obama still wishes to classify as beyond the protections of the Geneva Protocols?

Publicly interrupting  the President to berate him as a liar is not done in the U.S. Congress, and Wilson swiftly apologized. But it was an emblem of something that most definitely has surfaced  this summer: white race hatred for Obama. Wilson’s uncouth outburst was a nasty reminder of how unrestrained this is swiftly becoming. Eight years of contented Bush-bashing made many – including probably Obams and his entourage — forget just how violent would be the prejudices and hatred provoked by the election of a black president.

Truthers and Birthers: the Janus Face of Nut-dom

In his little squib on 9/11 on this site today Paul Krassner writes , I once asked a true believer, “If the Pentagon was really hit by a missile and not a plane, then what happened to all the people who were on the plane that didn’t hit the Pentagon?”

I answered this many years ago. The people on that plane had been kidnapped at an earlier stage in the operation, and flown to an airbase in Louisiana – the very self-same airbase where George Bush briefly  touched down in his erratic flight from Florida on 9/11/2001. George Bush then personally executed the captives.

Diid I really believe this when I wrote it? No. It was a satirical sally. But I did receive serious letters from people troubled by the lack of detail.Where had he shot them? With what type of weapon? A summary burst from a machine gun, or a .22 bullet behind each ear?

For all too many on the left, the so-called 9/11 conspiracy has become the magic key. If it can be turned, then history at its present impasse will be unlocked and we can move on.

For those on the racist right, aghast at the reality of a black man (albeit half white) in the White House, the magic key to reversing this unpleasing development is Obama’s suposedly fake Hawai’ian birth certificate. Their suppositions and claims shift, but the essence is always the same: he’s alien. He has no right to be president. And as with the Truthers, the provision of evidence rebutting their claims is merely fuel piled on the bonfire of their insanity.

The useful word here (or so I once found it in a memorable victory over my mother in Scrabble) is syzygy, from the Greek participle sun  and verb zugein, meaning two entities linked together while maintaining their separate existence – like a pair oxen drawing a plow in boustrophedonic syzygy.  That’s Truthers and Birthers – hauling their obsessions along. There’s considerable overlap.

Cockburn on the Road

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 7.30 pm

The CUNY Grad Center in Manhattan

The Future of Capitalism: Time to talk Alternatives

At CUNY’s Proshansky Auditorium, join Counterpunch co-editor and Nation columnist ALEXANDER COCKBURN and CUNY professor and author David Harvey. Moderated by bestselling author and host of GRITtv Laura Flanders.

Proshansky Auditorium
CUNY Grad Center
365 Fifth Ave., at  34th St.
New York, NY 10001
Open to all.
Book-signing reception to follow.

Wednesday, September 23 at 6pm

Raritan Valley Community College, State Route 28 & Lamington Rd
North Branch, NJ 08876

“America in Decline?”

The 6 pm event is free and open to all. Go to the Grand Conference Rooms

Exclusive to CounterPunch newsletter subscribers!

In our latest newsletter, published this weekend, find Eugenia Tsao’s brilliant report on the booming global trade in Psychotherapeutics. As  third world neoliberal economies plunge millions into hunger and desperation, sales of Prozac and other antipsychotics boom.

Take the case of Argentina. Tsao writes:

“Within the first five years of the IMF’s ravaging of the Argentinean economy in the early 1990s, total pharmaceutical revenues rose 70 per cent: … spooked by the proliferation of unlicensed copies of their patented compounds, multinationals like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer ramped up their efforts to encourage Argentinean psychiatrists to prescribe Paxil and Zoloft by sending them on free trips to prestigious North American and European scientific congresses (otherwise unaffordable for most researchers in the global South) and supplying them with free samples of brand-name product (cherished commodities in underfunded state hospitals).”

First World to Third: Don’t organize against imperial and local oppression. Blame yourself for being crazy and take Prozac.

In the newsletter subscribers will also find Elyssa Pachico’s amazing account of how the US Patents office helped a Colorado man claim ownership of the Mexican mayacoba bean. Pachico reviews the long string of patent piracies in recent years in which even ayahuasca, the psychedelic used by Amerindian shamans for centuries, has been the target of First World biopiracy.

Also in this latest newsletter you can find co-editor ALEXANDER COCKBURN’s account, based on Andrew Cockburn’s exclusive reporting at the time of how al-Megrahi, the Libyan with terminal prostate cancer recently sent home from a Scottish prison amid a huge and vindictive uproar in the U.S., was framed in a successful bid by the U.S. and U.K. to pin the Lockerbie bombing of Panam Flight 103 on Qaddafi’s Libya.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.