Archive for the ‘Health Care’ Category

Obama’s Waterloo

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

When I saw the CNN ticker scrolling — “Is Health Care Obama’s Waterloo?” — the neurotic Democrat in me pulled up a chair, poured a big cup of coffee, and announced that he’ll be sticking around awhile.

And I though of this article by Neal Gabler in the Boston Globe:

Obviously, we face daunting problems, but we nevertheless continue to operate with a kind of hopefulness that we will meet the challenges and triumph. Historically, we have reason to feel this way. In the last 70 years , this country faced down the Great Depression, Nazism, and Jim Crow. The system, however balky and tardy it may have been, has always worked.

But today, beneath the optimistic rhetoric, lurks another possibility that no politician and few pundits want to admit: that the system is no longer up to the task and that the factors that once brought relief are no longer operable. There is the real possibility that this time we will not win but rather founder the way Japan has done since its economic catastrophe. There is the possibility that this time it is hopeless.

The article outlines four reasons why Obama, who, despite predictably slipping poll numbers remains widely popular, is finding it almost impossible to get anything done.

  1. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was only partly right when he argued that crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates pain. It’s the pain that creates the opportunity, when people demand change. And while there is plenty of pain to go around in the U.S. right now, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent, that’s nowhere near the 25 percent unemployment that enabled Roosevelt to enact his New Deal agenda. “President Roosevelt had the advantage of an angry citizenry who wanted him to do anything to rescue them,” Gabler writes. “Obama has the disadvantage of a passive citizenry that, frankly, may never hurt enough to demand what might finally cure what ails them.”
  2. FDR also didn’t have to deal with 40,000 lobbyists, pulling each and every piece of legislation in equal and opposite directions. “In the last year nearly 2,500 began lobbying on the single issue of climate change,” Gabler notes. “By a political Newton’s Law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, which means that there are thousands of thrusts and parries on any major piece of legislation – a sure prescription for inaction or for tepid action.”
  3. Moreover, while FDR certainly had his enemies in the media, he faced nothing like the 24-7 media onslaught that a modern-day president absorbs. And it’s not the right-wing media that is the problem; just as often is the so-called mainstream, “whose baseline [is] skepticism about any possible government initiative.” The problem, Gabler writes, is “the mainstream media with their own attachment to the status quo, their own loaded questions about dramatic new policies and their predilection to identify potential missteps rather than to extol potential boldness.” (To wit: Is health care Obama’s Waterloo?)
  4. The Founding Fathers built our political institutions — the House, the Senate, the executive branch, the Supreme Court — to prevent drastic change and promote incrementalism, but they never imagined a political party “dedicated to total obstructionism.” Gabler notes that from 1927 to 1962, there were only 11 cloture votes invoked to end filibusters in the Senate. “In 2007 alone,” he writes, “with Republicans trying to derail initiatives in the Democratic Congress as disparate as an increased minimum wage, a climate change bill, campaign finance reform, and an energy bill, there were 62 cloture votes.” This, he argues, renders the seemingly steep Democratic majority in the Senate meaningless. “It is the Republican lurch rightward that has purged [the] few [GOP] moderates and gamed the filibuster so that any piece of legislation is now held hostage to 40 votes,” he notes. “This generates cries for bipartisanship, neglecting the fact that there is one party adamantly opposed to any change whatsoever.”

Gabler’s conclusion is pretty chilling:

And so we are now a nation with great professions of faith that we will succeed but little real confidence that we will, a nation that focuses more on what can go wrong than on what can go right, a nation that can’t seem to get action. We are a timid nation with small dreams and even smaller plans – a nation that seems to have lost its capacity to do big things. We all know the nation is broken, but we may no longer have the will or the institutions to fix it.

Obama has a press conference at 8 p.m. tonight. I imagine he’ll try to regain the upper hand on health care. But remember what Franklin Roosevelt said: “No government can help the destinies of people who insist in putting sectional and class consciousness ahead of general weal.”

Stay tuned.

Report: ‘The Sky Is Falling’

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

I was starting to get depressed.

It seems that everyone I speak to in the Jewish community is worried. Obama is pressuring Israel, but not the Palestinians, they say. He’s naïve about Iran. And why did he go to Cairo and say that Israel’s founding was rooted in the tragic history of the Holocaust?

These, by the way, are the folks who voted for him in the last election.

I had breakfast in the Senate dining room this morning. After, in an ornate hallway, I picked up copies of three of the best newspapers covering DC politics.

The Hill newspaper had this four column lead: “Dems reel on healthcare.”

Congressional Democrats and the White House are scrambling to regain their footing after a series of setbacks has stalled political momentum to reform the nation’s healthcare system … The Democratic roll-out on health care has encountered significant bumps in the road.

Roll Call blared: “Health Care Bipartisanship Fades.”

As Senate health care negotiations enter the final phase at the committee level, Democrats are emphasizing their own policy preferences and conceding the unlikelihood of attracting significant Republican support for the legislation.

Obama’s top domestic priority, down the chutes, before anyone’s even seen a bill.

But, wait. There’s more.

Politico decreed: “Obama Draws Rural Dem Ire.”

Angered by White House decisions on everything from greenhouse gases to car dealerships, congressional Democrats from rural districts are threatening to revolt against parts of President Barack Obama’s ambitious first-year agenda.

The gay community is angry at him. Pesticide manufacturers are upset about the organic garden on the White House lawn. Doctors booed him this week for refusing to cap malpractice law suits. On Israel, my best friend’s mother feels personally betrayed.

And then I did something that everyone inside the Beltway, and everyone active in the Jewish subset of that world, should do – at least once.

On the way from the Capitol to my hotel, I stopped off at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave. I didn’t go inside. I just perused the exhibit they have along the sidewalk: morning front pages from around the country and the world. More than 50 in all, posted, neatly, in handsome window boxes.

Are you sitting? Brace yourself.

Exactly three front pages had stories on health care. One of those was the USA Today, and the other two — The Alabama Gadsen Times and the Mississippi Hattiesburg American – actually ran an AP article with favorable headlines, about how the Dems were trimming the cost of the health care bill.

The Wyoming Star Tribune had a story about health care, too – Medicaid, focusing on cuts in the Wyoming department of health.

Only nine of fifty newspapers had front page articles about the uprising in Iran – and that includes the NY Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The Anchorage Daily news had the story, but it gave more prominence to a story about Gov. Palin’s pick for attorney general.

The Kentucky Enquirer did run a piece about concerns over nuclear power – but not in Tehran.  A new facility is planned for Piketon, Ohio.

In Montana, the Billings Gazette gave huge play to an animal cruelty case. The Morgantown, West Virginia Dominion Post had unsettling pictures of emergency workers trying to extricate a teenager from his overturned car. The news in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was about a bus that nearly tumbled down a city staircase. The Home News Tribune – my former hometown paper in Central Jersey – trumpeted: “Jeweler’s Death Still a Mystery.”

The stories about Iraq had a local angle. (The Telegraph, in Nashua, N.H., gave prominent play to a 23-year-old Salem High grad killed in Iraq over the weekend.) The scandals had a local flavor. (The Detroit News had a story about Conyers – not Michigan Congressman John – but city councilwoman Monica, facing bribery charges.) “’Magical Season’ ends for Cinderella Team” had nothing to do with the Magic of Orlando, and everything to do with the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, whose baseball team lost in the College World Series.

There were front page stories about swine flu and fires, gas leaks and calorie counting, floods, misbehaving teachers, and great hamburgers.

Sure, you could sit down and google all of these local papers, and view them one at a time. But walking along the row of windows, looking at one after another, had a downright cathartic effect, all its own. It was as if, all at once, the inside-the-Beltway-Jewish-world bubble I’m living in burst, and a burden lifted. Not a single story about how President Obama is dragging the country over a cliff while simultaneously destroying the special relationship between the United States and Israel!

Here’s the thing: Obama knows what’s on the front pages of all those newspapers. He has a long view. He knows that even people who disagree with him are giving him a lot of leeway right now. (The Times has his approval rating at 63 percent today.)

He understands that most people – including most Jews – aren’t paying that close attention to Israel at this point; they are not parsing every word of his Cairo speech or waiting to hear Bibi Netanyahu’s response. They are, first and foremost, worried about their jobs and their health and their communities; they want their kids to come home safe from prom.

Yet at the same time, Obama knows Israel is critically important, not only to the United States, but to a broad swath of American Jews. That’s why he goes so far to affirm and reaffirm the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel; he knows full well that the Jewish claim to Israel is first and foremost about the land; he has filled his White House with pro-Israel Jews who send their kids to Jewish day school, like Dan Shapiro and Rahm Emanuel. Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator and staunch friend of Israel, just moved from the State Department to the White House, where he will have the president’s ear.

Obama is pressing a peace process that most Jews support, because he believes it is ultimately in Israel’s best interest, the only way for the Jewish state to achieve true security. My sense is that by and large, Jews — from Nashua to Hattiesburg to Kenosha — understand this, and hope fervently that he succeeds.

‘There are Be-ers, and There are Doers’

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

There’s a good article by Matt Bai in the Times Magazine this week that tries to articulate what Obama is doing differently from Clinton and Carter to keep the Democrats in Congress on his side, so that he can pass his domestic agenda — and succeed where both Clinton and Carter failed.

Instead of a top-down approach — Clinton handing Congress a 1,000-page health care bill — Obama is, by design, not dictating, instead giving a broad policy framework, and letting the legislators hammer out the details. Congress is filled with professional legislators who like to legislate; they don’t like to be told what to do. Ronald Reagan, the article notes, used this same strategy to reform the tax code and shore up Social Security in his first year in office.

Here’s the nut:

Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. …Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

To this end, Obama has appointed Congressmen and Senators to key positions (think: Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden), filling his administration with “dozens of … former top-level Congressional aides.”

At the same time, Bai concludes that Obama can’t be too removed by the legislative process — particularly if he is seeking passage of laws that may be politically unpopular.

It’s fine for a president to stand back from the process — but not so far back that Congress thinks he’s trying to duck the consequences or that the public comes to see the whole enterprise as just another Congressional spending spree.

The stimulus bill, for example, was not going to pass without Obama hitting the campaign trail — in Indiana and Florida — and rallying public support.

It’s a difficult balancing act, Bai concludes, and one Obama won’t easily sustain during the upcoming health care debate.

Still, I was left with a sense that — as with the election campaign — Obama’s vision has as much to do with process, and learning from the mistakes of the past, as with ideas.

There is an incredible quote from Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is the Senate point man on health care, and who seems pleased with Obama’s inclusive approach to lawmakers.

“How do I say this delicately?” he asked. “President Bush, he liked being president. You know, there are be-ers, and there are doers. And I think he liked being president, as opposed to doing.” Obama, on the other hand, strikes Baucus as a doer. “You’ve really got to work at it, rather than just enjoying the job,” he said.