Obama's Big Speech: Math Trumps Rhetoric
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
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.