I know there's a growing impatience with the Obama Administration among progressives. And I see a lot of articles and blog posts out there expressing a growing sense that he's abandoning his principles for political expediency. There's this crazy notion that 30 years of neocon politics can be made to go away with a wave of his hand; that he can simply bring everyone in this often bipolar country together for a chorus of Kumbaya, which all of us who have ever had a brush with the wingnuts knows is pretty much impossible. But if he's going to keep the moderates on his side -- and make no mistake; we need them on our side -- he has to at least look like he's including Republicans in the process, even if they choose to bite his hand.
Believe me, my son sits in a tent in Kandahar as I write this. He joined the Army because he felt as if the only way he could pay for college would have been that way, or to leave college with a six-figure debt. I truly wish the president could snap his fingers and all of our bad neocon dreams will go away immediately.But that's not how life works. A lot of things about the neocon view of things have seeped into the culture, and it will take a phenomenal amount of work to reverse them.
I hereby beg progressives to have patience. President Obama hasn't abandoned his principles; at all; if anything, he's done just the opposite. He's living by them, and the end result of his presidency will be something pretty special. Don't let your ADD get the best of you; it's better to do something right than to do something fast.
By way of example, let's address his approach to gay rights. Yes, it's true; President Obama could simply wipe out "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" with the stroke of a pen. In one moment, he could give gay soldiers equal rights with everyone else. But there's a problem with that., in that it would be temporary.
And hasn't that been the problem all along? When Bill Clinton was in office, he made a lot of things go away by signing executive orders. But when Dubya became president, and Republicans had the majority in Congress, most of them went away.
If Obama eliminated the policy with the stroke of a pen, the next Republican president could then reinstate the law with stroke of HIS pen. It takes LEGISLATION to eliminate a policy like this; we need a law on the books; preferably one that would require a strong majority to repeal.
That is the key to Obama's approach, and you should understand what he's doing. He's trying to change things, folks. That's what you elected him to do, and that's exactly what he's doing. But "change" isn't just reversing the laws you don't like. The change he's making is in how government works; how it interacts with people and, just as importantly, how we interact with it. It also requires changing a culture in which most people think a 401(k) was created as a retirement account (it wasn't), that "living within your means" means being able to afford all of the monthly payments, and in which people truly believe that anyone can become a millionaire through hard work. (It's never been true, but people only started believing it was possible during the neocon era.)
We are coming out of a lot more than eight years of Bush, folks. If we consider change as just "doing things differently than Bush," then we have that already. Though many insinuate that Obama is continuing Bush policies, it's simply not true. Everything about the Bush Administration was a secret; there is more openness in the Obama presidency than we've seen in 30 years. We have an administration that is more open to outside influence than any in 30 years. But most importantly, this is the first administration in more than 40 years that has encouraged the American people (you know, US) to be a greater part of the system. Remember how John F Kennedy implored us to "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country"?? Yeah, it's like that. He's trying to get us fired up, to tell the people who actually make the laws what we want them to do, rather than dictate terms and then dare them to follow his lead.
Look at Obama's approach on health care for an example.
It would have been easy for the Obama Administration to throw out a blueprint and then do what the Clinton Administration did 15 years ago, and declare "my way or the highway." Instead, he got behind a plan, HR 3200, and he's been trying to influence the plan without dictating. One thing my management experience has taught me is that leadership is about drawing out the ideas of others, not imposing your ideas upon everyone else. He's not "capitulating," or "acquiescing to right wing demands" or any of the silliness I've heard recently. He's trying to demonstrate a willingness to bring all sides together and come up with a solution to our health care financing problems. Yes, we all know the attempts will be fruitless. But if we're going to actually make progress on things, we need moderates with us. And let's face it; every time Obama reaches out to the Republicans and they bite him, he wins and they lose, politically speaking.
Contrary to what many say, President Obama has been very clear about what he wants. It's just that what he wants is more "mission-oriented" than we're used to. This is what he's said he wants:
- Universal health coverage.
- Guaranteed coverage.
- Complete, dependable health insurance coverage of all treatment deemed necessary by a doctor.
- Employer mandates.
- Public option.
- It can't add significantly to the deficit.
And if you look at those, he's likely to get all of them.
The first four are a slam dunk. The only two that aren't are the last two. But his actions have pretty much guaranteed the first four, and made the last two far more likely than they looked to be not long ago. There were a lot of doubts about the public option for a long time, as the mere concept makes conservatives nervous. But by opening the floor up to alternative ideas (which many have called a "sell-out"), he encouraged Max Baucus to push forth his "co-ops" idea, and showed just what a dog it is. In the process, he made the public option look a lot more viable. By offering Republicans a chance to input their ideas, he's forced their hand, and made them look like complete losers. If you think the "Party of No" label isn't sticking, wait until next election season, folks. And by demanding that health insurance reform not add one thin dime to the deficit, he's blunted the one legitimate argument right wingers have against health insurance reform, including the public option. Which is why they've had to resort to making shit up.
I know everyone wants to see him "fight." We'd all love to see him go up to Glenn Beck and slap him silly. But that doesn't get a health care bill passed. While we've become used to Republicans dictating policy, real democratic politics is about compromise, and finding something most (not all, but most) people can live with.
President Obama is playing Republicans and Blue Dogs in Congress like a cheap fiddle, and a lot of progressives seem to be missing it. What a shame, because it’s a hell of a show. The right doesn’t know whether to shit or wind their watches, as the old saying goes. But you have to look at what happens after he does something to figure out why he does it. Every time he puts out a trial balloon that shows softness on the public option, he simultaneously gets the left fired up and makes the Republicans scream in horror, because the only part of the bill they can even think of attacking (again, without making shit up) is "government-run health care." You think they're going to come out in favor of rescission? Think they're going to go on the record as being in favor of "pre-existing conditions"? A lot of what he does is with the express purpose of shutting them up. It's the "put up or shut up" strategy. And it works. Every time he goes a little soft on a creation public insurance system, support for it rises.
We will get substantial health insurance reform this year. If you want to know what a miracle that is, consider this. In March 1933, after four years of Hoover and the Great Depression and with 25% unemployment, it still took Roosevelt TWO YEARS to get most of the New Deal through. Even the Social Security Act, which should have been a slam dunk, didn't pass until 1935. The first Medicare proposals were put through in 1960, and it took another SIX YEARS to pass them. If you follow the machinations of Congress, then you have to know how lightning fast the current health insurance reform is actually happening, in relative terms. In eight months, Obama and the Democrats engineered a massive stimulus package, and they’re about to pull off the greatest change to the health insurance system in more than 40 years, and to do so during a bad recession.
And they’re doing it in spite of some very real political realities that progressives like to pretend aren't at play here, but they're important in a democratic environment:
- Most people have insurance. Yeah, that's right, even though there's a crisis, to be sure, between 75-80% of Americans have health insurance.
- Most people don't pay most of their insurance premiums. Yeah, that's right; most Americans get their insurance through their employer, and employers, on average, pay 76% of their health insurance premiums. That means, if someone's actual insurance premiums doubled from $600 to $1200 over the last decade, all they saw was an increase from $150 to $300, on average. Not great, but it's not likely to set off alarm bells.
- Most people don't get sick. Even more true is that most of the people who have insurance never get sick; the insurance companies have kind of designed it that way. That means, most people don't have personal experience with an insurance company screwing them, and they don't necessarily know it could happen to them.
In other words, in an environment in which most people aren't likely to see the problem first-hand, President Obama and the Democratic Congress are on the verge of a major health insurance reform bill.
And though you may not have been listening closely, he's also put banks and financial institutions on notice that they're next. As soon as the economy stabilizes, expect a government buyout of those toxic assets, and then listen to the institutions that are holding those "securities" whine. If you think the "debate" over health insurance has been contentious, wait until they start screwing with the banks. I was just talking to a teller at Bank of America a few weeks ago, and she is under the impression that, if the government starts regulating the fees people pay on their accounts, she'll be out of a job. Of course, that's ludicrous, but that's how people have been trained to think.
One problem with so many of our laws over the last 30 years; is that we never actually codified a lot of them. A similar problem is that while neocon Republicans controlled things for six years earlier this decade, they did codify things. Of course, even before that, they were able to sneak some doozies through. Obviously, you all know about Gramm-Leach-Bliley, right? You should, because it caused the economic meltdown we're living through right now. The problem wasn't that banks and other financial institutions were breaking laws, it's that they weren't breaking laws. You know about the Patriot Act, but do you remember the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004? How about the series of Executive Orders that Bush pushed through during his last few months in office that don’t expire and can’t be overturned for at least another year or two? In many cases, President Obama is left with breaking current law, or trying to figure out a smart way to do the right thing under the current one. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of presidents just breaking laws they don’t like. So, he has to change them.
The biggest barrier progressives face in moving this country forward is impatience. We belong to a culture in which users deride computers that take more than 30 seconds to boot, and who actually won't use one browser if it takes one second longer to open a page than another browser. If a movie runs more than 90 minutes, we complain that it's too long. We carry Blackberries and iPhones because, well, an hour is just too long to answer a Facebook comment or a Tweet., and five minutes is too long to make our bosses wait, even on a day off. We're an ADD nation, and we've become more concerned with doing things quickly than doing things right. Obama is a throwback, to a certain extent. We can show all the impatience in the world, but he's not having any of it. He's demonstrated a focused intent to make changes permanent, not just quick, and we should actually be glad of that.
He has so much to do, and everyone out there has a different idea what should come first. He has to end two wars, and do so in a way that doesn't result in a major security hazard to us and our allies. He has to fix the banking system, but he can't do that without legislation, and no one can do it until the financial system becomes stable. He has to deal with an intelligence structure that was drastically changed twice between 2001 and 2004, and he can't just ignore the law and do what he wants, even if the law sucks. That's a precedent we don't need.
Then there are political realities. I know, Democrats have a majority now, and we should be able to run all over those damn Republicans. But we had 56 seats in 1994, the last time a Democrat won the White House and tried to jam a health insurance plan through Congress, and later that year, Democrats lost Congress. Majorities can be tenuous, folks, and given the ADD this country faces at this point in our history, it would be dangerous for President Obama to be like President Bush and act like he's "right" about everything, and dismiss everyone else's judgment if it doesn’t comport with his. Elections are won in the middle, not on the left or the right. Moderates appreciate it when a politician considers all sides. But don’t worry, if we give them reasons to do so, they will eventually come down on our side.
There is one thing about progressive rhetoric that bothers the hell out of me, to be quite honest, and that is the notion that, if a politician isn't seen openly "fighting" for something, then he has no balls, and he's not working to get something done. If I hear one more progressive say they wish President Obama was like Bush or Reagan, I'll beat ‘em up. (that’s a joke, folks; I’m quite the pacifist.) There are all kinds of ways to get what you want., but the LEAST effective way is to scream and yell and stomp your feet, especially in a democracy. In the last 80 years, Republicans have had control of the government exactly twice, and both times, they screwed it up completely because they did exactly what some progressives seem to be demanding President Obama do. We need a government that’s inclusive, and we have to understand that politics is about the art of compromise. And if you think of compromise as a “sell-out,” or a “capitulation,” or some other nonsense word, then you don’t get how the system works.
Let me clue you in on something, folks. Neocons didn't win so many elections over the last 30 years because they were such great politicians, and masters of the system. They won because progressives ceded power to them. Progressives have become masters of "take my ball and go home" politics. And if we keep this up with Obama, we'll be watching it happen again; mark my words. Republicans have never been strong politically; we just stayed on the sidelines and effectively weakened the Democratic Party. I'll get into this more in a later post but, put simply, the difference between progressives and the far right has been that we somehow think we have the numbers to effect change by threatening to stay away from the polls or vote for someone who can't win if we don't get our way. Meanwhile those on the right know they have to show up en masse to effect change. In a democracy, tell me which of those strategies is more effective in the long run.
If a group of progressives goes into a Democratic Party meeting, they can change everything. if they stay outside and scream at the building, they're affecting nothing. Get it? I've spent more time than you'll ever know as the only progressive at a Democratic Party meeting. Gee, I wonder why the party seemed to have moved right all those years... How did that happen?
What many progressives seem to see as "selling out" or "capitulation," or "appeasement" is actually good politics. Good politics is not about imposing your will on others; it’s about getting others to see your point of view, and getting them to agree to as much of your agenda as possible. One reason we have such an emergency in health care right now,is precisely because progressives dropped the ball on the Clinton plan in 1994. I was there. It didn’t go far enough, and it didn’t eliminate insurance companies completely was the cry from most progressives I was dealing with. But it would have eliminated pre-existing conditions, it would have prohibited insurance companies from denying claims short of fraud, it would have created an employer mandate, and it would have covered all but about 5-10 million people. It also would have eliminated most of the inflation in health care, which means we’d all be paying more reasonable premiums by now. If progressives had gotten behind the Clinton plan, all we’d be doing right now is advocating for a public insurance option to patch the system. Not only that, but single-payer would be a realistic leap, rather than the pipe dream it actually has become, given the political realities we're faced with.
As progressives, we have to learn that baby steps are better than no steps at all, and that complete reform rarely comes all at once.
President Obama wants to fix problems, but he can't fix everything in two years, and he'll be hard pressed to fix many of them within four years. But eight months? Come on, folks. Relax a little. If we play our cards right, this is the beginning of a long reform period; one that will undo a lot of bullshit that has been more than 30 years in the making. In order to change everything that needs changing, we'll have to change the culture, not just a few laws. That will take a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of activism. Instead of complaining and wringing your hands about how "disappointing" Barack Obama is, transfer that negative energy to the positive, and start turning the people -- the moderates -- out there to our side. I mean, we got him elected, against all odds. Where's the energy to get him what he wants?
President Obama is trying to return us to an earlier time, when government made laws and people could count on them to be there until we decided to change them. When he said he would effect change, he meant it. He's interested in creating laws that will outlive his presidency, not just orders that future governments can simply reverse with the stroke of a pen. He's looking to create a comprehensive program for energy generation and efficiency that will shape the next generation; not simply keep gas prices low and get us to switch to the "alternative fuel of the day" for now. He's looking to create a national health insurance program that will cover everyone and prevent private insurance excesses. And he wants to create a level playing field for everyone that can't be undone the next time a Republican takes the White House.
Have patience, everyone; it takes a while to build a legacy that the next Republican Administration can't simply sign away. Keep fighting, but focus on the real enemies of progress in this country. I've had enough of the progressive circular firing squads, thank you very much.