Monday, September 7, 2009

Healthcare didn't have to go this way

Obama gave away the store on this crucial issue. It's time to take it back

By Joe Conason

NewsAchieving humane and affordable healthcare in America was never going to be easy, even with an audacious new president and large majorities in both houses of Congress. Compromise between the Democratic Party's diverse representatives -- let alone with the tiny handful of Republicans who actually care about the need for reform -- was always inevitable. And when the moment for compromise arrived, the result was certain to disappoint many of the president's most ardent voters, who cherished his campaign's promises of change. But the mundane grind of making legislation need not have been quite as painful as it is today, when progressives feel betrayed, and Democrats feel deflated. 

The essence of President Obama's problem can be found in an anonymous quote, attributed to a White House official, that appeared on the front page of the New York Times last Wednesday. "It's so important to get a deal," confided the unnamed aide, that the president "will do almost anything it takes to get one." Such desperate confessions of politics as usual, which have appeared in dozens of such remarks in the press over the past several months, not only serve the president poorly but damage the fresh brand that he brought to Washington after his triumphant election last year. They are the residue of an ill-conceived strategy that has left Obama politically vulnerable, attenuated his connection with loyal progressives, and blurred his most important message. 

That message was Obama himself, of course -- meaning what he represented and what he meant to accomplish. From the outset of the 2008 campaign, the rationale for his long-shot candidacy was that he stood firmly for a set of principles in policy and governance and against political business as usual, as well as a style of politics that emphasized citizen activism. He would drive the corporate lobbyists away from Capitol Hill, the White House and the federal agencies. He would insist on transparency and integrity in conducting the people's business. Above all, he would pursue the public interest forthrightly rather than inch forward triangularly and incrementally. 

Perhaps none of these happy promises was likely to be fulfilled, and perhaps that was something Obama and his campaign aides always understood. But as the new White House came to terms with the realities of Washington, they seem to have thrown off their original images and ideals insouciantly -- as if unburdening themselves of unfashionable baggage that embarrassed them in the big city. 

Nowhere has this fundamental mistake been more visible than in the effort to reform healthcare. From more than six decades of struggle over the question of universal coverage and cost control, the Obama team must have known that they would face enormous opposition. They should also have known, from the ugly mood of the Republican campaign during the final weeks of the election and the partisan history of the past 15 years, that chances for bipartisan agreement were minimal. And they ought to have realized that the energy of the progressive movement, expressed in their own campaign, could become their most formidable weapon in that battle. 

That was the insight attributed to FDR in a famous anecdote. When progressive leaders approached him with a wish list of reform programs and liberal legislation, he nodded. "I agree with you, I want to do it. Now make me do it." Although Roosevelt biographers consider that story apocryphal, it expresses a truth of political history that remained salient from the labor organizing of the Depression through the civil rights, antiwar, feminist and environmental movements. For a president who wants reform and change, citizen agitation is an important instrument of power, not an obstacle to deal making.

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