How Obama fooled the left: rhetorical manipulation and its consequences

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.

Obama, in attempting the first significant healthcare reform legislation in 40 years, understood quite well what he needed to do:get the base -- the people who donated money, sweat and tears to get him elected -- off his back, and on his side, without ceding them anything on the policy front. And a week later it appears he has pulled off this major feat, while hiding behind strong but largely empty language about the nature of liberalism.

    Obama's speech laid out a plan that primarily did three things.

1) It threw a huge bone to private insurance companies by providing a mandate, forcing uninsured people to buy policies, thus guaranteeing tens of millions of new customers to buy thier products or face tax penalties. Insurance companies love this idea, and having donated large piles of money to both political parties, this position has the support of both sides of the isle in Washington. Small wonder Business Week recently declared that the "Health Insurers have Already Won."

2) His plan drew a line on the sand on the deficit, in an effort to appeal to budget hawks. Obama declared he will not sign a bill that adds even "one dime" to the deficit, showing no flexibility on the matter.

3) The President, for all practical purposes, killed prospects for a public option, by saying it was only a "means" to an end, and unessential. There will be no veto threats or legislative arm-twisting on this issue. Instead the left gets lectured for using the public option as a "handy excuse" to have the "usual Washington ideological battles" (as if standing up for something the public wants and voted for is some kind of egregious sin).

The third point is critical. Going into the speech, many liberals, most notably among House Democrats, were demanding a public option. Some of them, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were insisting that the legislation include a public healthcare plan that uninsured Americans could buy into (most constructs of the plan would not allow someone currently enrolled in an employer-based plan to buy in -- already a huge concession from the left), lest they vote against the bill.

Obama could have used his speech to fight for such a reform, if he so chose. A whopping 72 percent of the public support a public option of some sort, while 59 percent support a sweeping national healthcare plan (ie, Medicare for All, or single-payer healthcare.) Further, due to progressive domination of the last two elections, Obama is blessed with mammoth majorities in both chambers of Congress. While it is true the GOP will not support a public option, it is a moot point -- the GOP, save perhaps one lone Senator, won't support a bill without a public option either. And the Democrats have the ability to pass through a bill with only 51 votes, as Republicans did with the Bush tax cuts in 2001.

But while Obama drew a line in the sand on the deficit, refusing to budge with one dime, he wavered on the public option -- saying that while he likes the idea, he is not married to it. The end result: the insurance companies get what they want -- no public competition and a mandate; Republicans, though irrelevant in practice, manage to help kill such a plan with their militant opposition to government-funded healthcare; and progressives, despite having the public behind them, get nothing except brilliantly worded and passionate oratory. Obama may not be able to (or truly want to) deliver a public option, but no one can doubt his ability to deliver a damn good speech.

But special interests often win battles in Washington, that is no surprise. What is so startling about Obama's repudiation of the major progressive aspect of the bill (single-payer, the choice of progressives, was ceded at the start), was the progressive reaction to the speech. Rather than show disgust and dismay at being slighted, progressives declared the speech a victory. At the Huffington Post, a popular liberal political blog, at least six glowing responses to the speech were posted within hour of its conclusion.

Paul Begala explained "Why I Loved Obama's Health Care Speech," in one post. 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 stretched 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, his favor is on the side of the 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. And worse, the slight improvements, in most instances, will not occur for four years.

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 channeling 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 it. 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"). Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA executive, 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. Rep. Weiner called it a "gift to corporations." 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 a persuasive short film that has been widely circulated online.

But as single-payer supporter, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, noted at Dailykos, the dreary path of healthcare reform seems pretty well laid out.

He writes:

"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.
  1. The White House will refer to the President's speech last week where he spoke favorably of the public option.
  1. 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.
  1. The bill will come to a House-Senate Conference Committee without the public option.
  1. House Democrats will be told to support the conference report on the legislation to support the President.
  1. 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.

Michael Corcoran is a journalist who focuses on business, media, and public affairs. He has written for The Nation, The Boston Globe, Extra!, Alternet, Campus Progress, and other publications. His work can be read at: michaelcorcoran.blogspot.com