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Obama’s health care speech: bipartisanship as one-way street

The most outstanding characteristic of the Democratic party since the departure of Lyndon Johnson has been its strange fear of being identified with its own progressive base.

President Barack Obama has at times seemed to be different. But in his health care speech to a joint session of Congress, the president joined into the fetish for bipartisanship that is, quite frankly, shared only by Democrats.

The right wing, meanwhile, showed up with signs, boos, and a shout of “Liar!” apparently from Representative Joe Wilson, from South Carolina’s 2nd District. (Full Disclosure: I lived in the 2nd District for five years. I voted against Joe Wilson twice.) Ever strong on symbolism, if short on effective public speakers, the GOP response was delivered by Dr. Charles Boustany, another awkward Louisiana politician whose first claim to fame was that he might have been a “birther.” He delivered the response from the Strom Thurmond room, named for the infamous South Carolina senator who delivered the longest filibuster in history—against the Civil Rights Act.

While the Republicans, fresh off feigned outrage over having been called “assholes” by Van Jones, brought tea party antics into Congress in an attempt to curry more favor with the rabid base, Obama scolded progressives as if their actions in support of his bill were somehow equivalent with booing the idea of health care for migrants. Yet it was by and large the progressive wing of the Democratic party, the ones who are fighting and fundraising to keep the public option that Obama himself proposed, who made sure Barack Obama was first the Democratic nominee and then the President.

“To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it. The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal. And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have,” Obama said.

But he misrepresents the point. Progressives have drawn a line in the sand over the public option because it itself is a compromise from the single-payer system that almost every other industrialized nation provides its citizens. And at times in his speech, Obama seemed to be making the case for single-payer himself.

“Without competition, the price of insurance goes up and the quality goes down. And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly – by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates.

Insurance executives don’t do this because they are bad people. They do it because it’s profitable. As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill; they are rewarded for it. All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called ‘Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.’”

Yet he went on to argue for insurance companies’ right to profit, and even tossed some red meat to Republicans by saying that he was open to examining malpractice reform. He even undercut his own best argument for the public option by noting that it would not be taxpayer-subsidized and therefore would be able to compete with insurance companies “fairly.”

Obama laid out insurance reforms that, yes, would be quite helpful: eliminating the ability of insurance companies to put a cap on benefits or refuse coverage due to preexisting conditions. He compared the public option to public universities, able to compete and provide a lower-cost option than private, elite universities—an excellent metaphor to assuage the fears of those to whom loss of status means more than loss of money. He faced the worst of the GOP myths head-on—death panels, Medicare cuts, and the like—and reassured social conservatives that none of their hard-earned cash would be going to pay for abortions or “illegal immigrants.”

Abortions are legal health care procedures, and immigrants spend money the same way the rest of us do, but these points are understood to be scary to the right and so it must be clear that they are not included in the plan. What is included in the plan, as of this speech, is instead an individual mandate to buy care, something Obama deliberately left out of his plan on the campaign trail in contrast to Hillary Clinton.

He was vague on the details of just how a mandate would be enforced, but the fact remains that Americans will be required to buy health insurance—and if there is no public option in the bill, then Americans will be forced by their government to buy a service from profit-making companies. The individual mandate keeps insurance and drug companies happy—millions of new customers!–but in places like Massachusetts has done little to drive down costs.

The high point of his speech was a reference to Ted Kennedy—a bastion of true fighting liberalism in Congress—and yes, the mention of Social Security and Medicare, two wildly popular programs decried as socialism when first proposed. “We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it,” the president said, and not even Joe Wilson had the gall to boo.

Reaching across the aisle might be one of Obama’s talents, but the Republicans proved tonight that they aren’t interested in meeting him halfway. No matter how far right Bill Clinton went, whether it was abandoning health care reform, pushing for NAFTA, or gutting welfare, it wasn’t enough to save him from the impeachment trial. Instead, they want to pull him further and further right until his own party gives up on him and they can defeat him in 2012 or pick up congressional seats in 2010. Obama would be wise to remember that.

Speaking of 2010, however, the brightest side of the speech might have been the instant reaction online to Joe Wilson’s shouts. With the lightning-speed of the Internet, watchers found out who the loudmouth was and passed the information along via Twitter. Petitions sprang up to censure Wilson, but more importantly, Rob Miller, Wilson’s Democratic opponent, raised thousands of dollars in donations in minutes.

Obama would also be wise to remember that: the Netroots and small donations from progressives put him in office, and they’re still active and engaged. Instead of talking down to us, he needs to enlist our help. Progressives are fundraising for congresspeople willing to take a stand on a public option. We are organized and ready to fight. We, not Republicans who have no interest in reform, are the ones who deserve support.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

2 thoughts on “Obama’s health care speech: bipartisanship as one-way street

  1. Democrats fear being replaced by Republicans. They would ram this thing through if they could. If they did a lot of them would be voted out next year.

    Obama’s technically not a liar on this issue. He’s deceptive, though. The magnitude of his deception, arrogance, and condescension towards valid populist concerns is breathtaking. The way this legislation is written it is absolutely clear that illegal immigrants would, as they are now, flood our medical system, but with increased cost to taxpayers for the bill.

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