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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Obama dilemma

In the frenzy between attempts to pass health care reform and to destroy it, no one seems to be asking what happens if no reform is passed.   That question seems to be in the minds of the White House, but no one has flat-out addressed it.

Part of  the problem is that Obama finds himself cornered by trying to be considerate and nice.  He won the nomination as Democratic candidate because he refused to engage in the ad hominem tactics that caused people to side against and defect from Hillary Clinton.  As the Democratic candidate, he steadfastly stayed above the cheap defamation and false accusations that came from the McCain-Palin campaign.  The mindless yawp of Sarah Palin was a major factor in Obama's margin of victory.  Obama's articulateness and intelligent bearing offered a dramatic relief from the dull incompetence and deception that created a huge intellectual gap between the red and  blue factions during the previous eight years.

Obama projected a promise to lift politics out of the blogger level of endemic malice and petty resentments that are rooted more deeply in infantile egotism and the hubris of ignorance than in any coherent political positions based on facts.  Obama's supporters were so buoyed by the optimism of returning to intelligent dialogues befitting the democracy envisioned by the founders that they neglected to assess the motives of their opposition and their intensity.

Obama's promise was:

  • to extract the U.S. from its futile waste of life and taxes in Iraq and to put the nation on a course toward a constructive solution in Afghanistan;
  • to end the demolishing of American policies of decency represented by water boarding and other extreme measures and the threat to American standards of justice represented by  Abu Ghraig and Guantanamo;
  • to end the rapid dissolution of the economy and rescue a financial system that had become totally driven by greed and predation;
  • to deal with the mounting costs and inaccessibility for many of health care.
There are other hopes, of course, but these are the top ones.  Health care  receives emphasis because it is consuming family budgets at a an alarming rate and is projected to continue.  In 2005, a Harvard Medical School study found that 60 percent of the bankruptcies filed in the U.S. were triggered by medical bills.  A 2007 study confirmed that figure and indicated it is rising.

While one can Google for refutations of those studies, none of the denials are based upon actual criticisms of the study protocols.  In other words, there are denials of the figures, but no valid critiques which examine the actual numbers cited.

There is also a loud denial of the 47 million people who do not have health insurance and the number who are underinsured. It has become customary among the Republican misanthropes to dismiss this by saying such things as these people chose automobiles or other frivolities over health care.  The demographics  and the magnitude of the number indicate the absurd falseness of this dismissal, but the stance reveals the moral dimension of the reform opposition.  The opposition has chosen to bare its soul and put on a display of ill will that resides deep in the reptilian cortex.

The Republicans claim they have plans to reform health care, but no such plans were reported in the congressional committees that dealt with health care bills.  What has been expressed most loudly and consistently is the desire to demean and destroy any plans that come from the Democrats.    

The tea party movement was motivated by a supposed opposition to aspects of reform, but the dominant message was one of racist  belligerence.  The signs and slogans which contained false accusations and openly racist insults showed the nation that racial hatred is still a driving force in American politics.  While some tea party celebrants insisted that their participation was based upon earnest opposition to policy, they made no attempt to disassociate themselves from those who came with AK-47s and signs depicting Obama as a witch doctor.  In fact, they generally defended the right of racist belligerents to express themselves.  But they resented the right of observers to  conclude that their protests were grounded in plain, old-fashioned racial malice, not in any knowledge of what health care reform actually proposes.  And the progressives' notion that the election of Obama signaled a post-racial era is now recognized as a hopeful silliness.

If no health care reform is passed or if it is so watered-down that it doesn't extend coverage and reduce costs,  this episode will be a triumph for those who contend that people who do not have the wherewithal to have health care coverage are undeserving of it.  The term "fascist" has been used to so much in the right wing sound and fury that it has lost its meaning.  But real fascism advances the belief in  designating an underclass as inferior and, therefore, qualifying for denial of humane consideration.  That designation has been made stridently by the right wing.  People who for all the various reasons do not have health care coverage or for whom it is inadequate deserve, in the minds of the Becks and Limbaughs who speak for the right wing, all the pestilence that can be heaped on them.  Racial hatred is the paradigm for health care protest.  Mitch McConnell standing before the Senate vowing to block any health care reform is the reincarnation of Orville  Faubus blocking black students from entering the Little Rock high school.  The  main difference is that the hatred has  expanded to encompass anyone of any race who is designated by Beck and Limbaugh as liberal.  It is about the right wing obsession with exclusion as its fundamental political motive. 

Obama has extended the hand of civility and friendship to the right wing.  It has consistently been spurned and even slapped down with vehement fury.   His pledge to restore intelligence, comity, and basic respect to the governing processes has exposed him to all the denigration, obstruction, and destruction that his opponents can dream up.  His dilemma is that being nice has greatly impeded his agenda, and his supporters think it is time to get on with business--the rage, the obstruction, and petulance of Republicans be damned.

Howard Dean has commented that if the Republicans were in the majority and were promoting health care reform, it would be done by now.  They extract jack-boot discipline from their party members, and they are not  concerned about decency, unless it can be used a pretext for their outbursts of phony outrage. 

No matter what Obama does, he will lose support, as he has been.  People are impatient for results.  Progressives think he should have used the economic crisis as the chance to purge those responsible for America's failures--the auto industry, the financial industry, the war mongers.  Moderates realized that a summary disposal of the misperforming factions would make the Great Depression look like a minor discomfort in comparison. The country would have to go through economic hell while it tried to rebuild its financial and industrial infrastructure.

Similarly, on the other fronts, Obama chose to work as much as possible with the people who were in place in the military, in the intelligence agencies, and in health care.  Progressives think doing so was a mistake.  Moderates are wary of any consideration given to those who begged for bailout money, then moaned and whined at conditions put on it--and later rebuffed Obama's attempts to get them to reform their practices.  The ridiculous bonuses to those who almost brought the country down are a case in point.

But health care is the focal  point.  If nothing is changed or the changes are inadequate, what will those who voted for it do?  The flagging approval ratings give a hint.  Obama seemed like the last best hope to restore American democracy.  While the right wing rails about what Obama is doing to America, the America they treasure was the America of military belligerence, unconscionable deceptions of the people, special privileges for an overclass, and a version of patriotism that was carefully modeled on obedience to the fascist precepts it followed.  This is what the right wing wants restored, and the left wing wants to move away from.

The  political divide is made for civil war.  As the polarity between the left and right wings increases, the differences become irreconcilable.  As a former colleague in political science put it when asked to be on a discussion panel, it is hard enough to be on the same planet with some of these people, let alone in the same room.

It would be a serious error to read the flagging poll ratings of Obama as a loss of faith in him alone.  The disapproval ratings of the political parties must be pulled into the context.  The loss of faith is in America.  It is simply dysfunctional. 

What happens in health care is the touch stone.  If nothing happens, the left wing will not wait another 15 years.  While the Republicans seem able to exert control over their minions, the Democrats are not so tractable.  The poll numbers and the more reasoned commentators identify dysfunction in government as the reason behind the declining approval ratings.  And only one political party can claim unequivocal sponsorship of the  dysfunction.

Since the election of 2004, a number of friends left South Dakota because of what they regarded as an unhealthy political climate.  The restlessness that drove the pioneers and early settlers from one state to another is not dead.  Just as our children accept the fact that there is little in the state that can satisfy their ambitions and aspirations, they question whether the America that can be dominated by perverse hatefulness is a place worth bothering much about.  I also hear this from contemporaries who have been politically active in the past, but who now regard voting as a joke.  The government has become incapable of registering what they voted for.  And they point to the election of 2000 as the ultimate desecration of the ballot box.

America is not too big to fail.  Many doubt that it has the intellectual acuity or the moral substance to rescue itself.  Obama's biggest dilemma is the doubt that possesses some of his strongest supporters. They are carefully watching what happens with health care reform. And whether there is much to hope for in America anymore. 

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