Just a week removed from Barack Obama's much anticipated speech about healthcare reform, one can hardly deny the shrewdness of our new president's rhetorical skills. This is not a good thing.
Jacob Heilbrun claimed Obama "came out swinging" and made the "single most persuasive case for government intervention in decades," in another. From Bill Cunningham: "Tonight, we saw a leader, unafraid to stand and deliver...not a political document, but a platform that all who care about real reform, can support and amend and work for."
This jubilant tone streched further into the liberal stratosphere. Katrina vanden Huevel, an unabashed supporter of single-payer healthcare and editor of the Nation -- often described as the flagship of the American left -- said Obama showed his "progressive spine" with his speech.
On MSNBC, Steve Hilderberg, a former Obama campaign staffer who has been organizing with others former staffers to demand a public option, seemed unperturbed that Obama, for all practical purposes, caved to the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Caucus, who oppose the idea, and not the progressives who elected him.
When asked by Kieth Olberman if Obama's speech was strong enough, he said "For sure. I never had any doubt, this favor is on side of American people and not in bed with special interests ... he hit it out of the ballpark."
But progressives have got to get past the glowing rhetoric, and notice something very important: Obama is going to pass a weak bill.
Surely there is an understandable desire to defend Obama, given that he has been subject to absurd lies and distortions from a right-wing base that has become more delusional and vitriolic by the day. And no doubt, Obama was right to call out the "death panel" fanatics for their pathetic "games" and often racist tirades. Moreover, Obama did articulate a liberal vision of sorts with his soaring explanation of the need for the government to step in when times warrant; and his channelling of the recent passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who viewed healthcare reform as the great unfinished business of his life, was emotional and effective. But the rhetoric was window dressing; the plan itself is a gift to the powerful, sold as a gift to the masses. Paul Street, writing in Znet, wisely quoted the left-wing version of Christopher Hitchens, who in 1999 said the "the essence of American politics" is the "the manipulation of populism by elitism." Obama has proven to more effective at this manipulation than even Bill Clinton, who Hitchens was referring to with that astute comment.
Sure enough, as the week went on, key congressional supporters of a public option, including Speaker Pelosi, began to, in the words of a New York Times reporter, "drop their insistence," on the public option. By Sunday, the New York Times -- which, more than any publication in the world sets the news agenda -- ran a front-page story, The Fading Public Option, highlighting this trend. Obama's staff surely must have marveled at how easily they were able to kill the plan, while at the exact same time touting its value. If lives were not at stake -- and if was not such a grotesque reminder of the flawed nature of the US political system -- one could almost take joy in the political spectacle that was Obama's speech and the week that followed.
It should be noted that not everybody on the left drank Obama's brew. Matt Rothschild, editor of the Progressive, rightly chastised the weak direction Obama had taken the bill ("ingenious and disingenuous, naïve and nobody's fool"), as did John Nichols at the Nation ("Obama Speaks Loudly But Carries a Small Stick"). Rep. Wiener, (D-NY), whose principled stand on the healthcare debate has placed him with the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. John Conyers, as a true leader in the quest for a rational and humane healthcare system, called a spade a spade, saying if the legislation coming out of the Senate Finance Committee (which does not include a public option) becomes law, it should be renamed the 'Insurance Industry Profit Protection Act". Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films, also continued to make the case, with the help of President Clinton's former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in apersuasive short film that has been widely circulated online.
"Let me share with you some insight about health care legislation which may not be good for your health:
1. House will make a big deal about keeping/putting a public option in HR3200 because it competes with insurance companies and will keep insurance rates low.
2. The White House will refer to the President's speech last week where he spoke favorably of the public option.
3. The Senate will kill the competitive public option in favor of non-competitive "co-ops". Senate leaders like Kent Conrad have said the votes to pass a public option were never there in the Senate.
4. The bill will come to a House-Senate Conference Committee without the public option.
5. House Democrats will be told to support the conference report on the legislation to support the President.
6. The bill will pass, not with a "public option" but with a private mandate requiring 30 million uninsured to buy private health insurance (if one doesn't already have it). If you are broke, you may get a subsidy. If you are not broke, you will get a fine if you do not purchase insurance.
This legislative sausage will be celebrated as a new breakthrough and will be packaged as health insurance reform."
Only time will tell if Kucinich's projections are accurate, but it is hard to envision a different script, is it not?
The consequences of Obama's attitude towards his progressive base go beyond on healthcare reform. If progressives continue to cave in the name of supporting their beloved new president, Emperor Hope they will continued to be viewed as a non-entity in Washington D.C. on all matters of importance. The mindset of Democratic leaders, and their willingness to walk all over progressives in Congress was described well by blogger Jed Lewison, in a post titled, "Why the Public Option Matters."
"So you sacrifice the progressives, and you don't think twice about it. It's nothing personal. You might not even think it's the best policy," he wrote. "But it's just the way it works, and you've got to get something done. So do you it, knowing that it will work. And whether or not you like it, you know that as long as progressives let themselves get steamrolled, that's always the way it will work."
Liberal columnist Paul Krugman also put it succinctly. "And sooner or later Democrats have to take a stand against Reaganism — against the presumption that if the government does it, it's bad.
Obama has already shunned his base many times: on cabinet appointments, on Afghanistan, on detention policy, on repealing Bush's tax cuts, on gay rights and so on. Now he is allowing private insurance companies to dictate healthcare policy. This needs to stop. Because at this rate, progressives insistence on supporting Obama at all costs has become a liability to our democracy and our health.