On September 9, President Obama addressed a rare, joint session of Congress. His topic was health care reform. Universal health care is something every Russian citizen already gets from their government. But in the United States, the World’s richest country, it’s a big deal and a bitter debate. In America, if you get very sick, you probably go broke. Illness is the leading cause of bankruptcy here, and it’s why many Americans lose their homes. Our health care system is by far the most costly in the World and one of the most inefficient. In the last election, big change in America’s health care system was a major plank in the Democratic Party’s platform and one of Obama’s key campaign promises. The idea was a single payer system, something like what exists in Canada, England, Germany, Russia and other civilized countries. But at the US Capitol, Obama moved away from that.
The Democrats began the health care debate in earnest shortly after taking power back in January. The discussion quickly became acidic. There are huge vested interests making obscene and astronomical amounts of money on the system’s inefficiency and to be frank, they don’t care tuppence about delivering quality healthcare to anyone. They care about profits. Big insurance companies are raking in billions of dollars every year and unless those profits steadily increase, CEO bonuses might be only ten instead of fifty or a hundred million dollars.
Like their colleagues in The Financial Sector, the very last thing these rich and powerful people want is any government regulation, let alone competition in their industry. So with a ruthlessness that would make a Mafia Kingpin blush, they began a multi-media smear campaign of character assassinations, lies and half-truths that preyed upon the darkest elements of human nature. Some of the larger companies even strong-armed their employees to call and pressure their elected representatives during business hours. It worked. Last evening, in his speech, Obama cracked like a fat man’s cane.
Before the election, Obama promised a single payer system. After taking power, he quickly compromised and began to speak about a ‘government option” instead; a sort of public health insurance plan that could compete with private insurance. But last evening, he gave even that away by offering to compromise again. Now compromise isn’t a bad thing. It’s what we Americans do best. Though it has often been misinterpreted as a sign of weakness or indecisiveness, it’s actually the secret of our success. But there is a point at which one compromises so much that the very atoms of our intentions are split and the substance changes.
Obama went past that point in his speech. Without at least a strong public option, no meaningful change in the way America pays for health care is likely. There will be no entity large enough to drive a harder bargain with suppliers or provide competition to private insurers and drive down costs. Worse, the current vogue, private non-profit health care ‘cooperatives’, is more likely to simply re-shuffle the sickest people away from private insurance and onto these soon to be bankrupt cooperatives that will need government bailouts. In other words, the way things are going promises nothing so much as a cash boon for the huge private insurance companies and more red ink for taxpayers without much improvement to the system.
A Russian friend of mine, perhaps from experience, merely shrugged his shoulders at my complaining. “Politicians always lie” he said. But Obama’s flip-flop on health care reform seems to signal something bigger. With sizable majorities in both houses, Obama’s endless compromises suggest either of two, equally disturbing possibilities. He is either unable or unwilling to lead. Either he doesn’t have the skill to persuade or this watered down version of health care reform is closer to what he truly believes. The fact that both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are escalating, that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, like Henry Paulson before him, is another Goldman Sachs groupie, that Ben Bernanke remains at the Federal Reserve and that Robert Gates remains at Defense, all suggest that the later is true, that were he a beer, Obama might best be called ‘Republican Lite”. But either way, what is most evident is how powerless the political ‘left’ has become in American politics.
Back in the early 1980s, there was an almost comical figure that wandered around many college campuses. He was an unwashed, aging hippie that always reeked of marijuana. He was a card carrying communist who taught that democracy was simply a tool of bourgeoisie capitalist pigs, that religion was the opiate of the people, that the only good government was an overthrown government, and that American imperialism was the seed of evil in the modern world. An amusing sort, harmless in the end, most gave him a tolerant but rather wide berth. He was a Marxist, assigned to the outer fringes of the radical left. In the thirty years since, the political center in America has moved markedly in the opposite direction. Moderates like Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon are practically non-existent in the Republican Party. Liberals like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Walter Mondale are nothing so much as embarrassing ghosts of Democrats past. And both parties got religion now. So what Obama seemed to signal last evening was a fundamental shift in American politics. Those of us who believe that quality health care is a basic human right, that Washington ought to protect working Americans over corporations, that bigotry ought to have no place in public policy, that God doesn’t get a vote, and that wars can no more be waged for peace than alcohol can be drunk for sobriety, we are America’s new radical left.
Dominick L. Auci, Ph.D.