When President Barack Obama took office after a brilliant and historic election campaign, there were great hopes that he would utilize his margin of victory and enormous popularity to usher in an era of "change you can believe in." Though it is far too early to predict the ultimate legacy of his presidency, there are troubling signs that rather than boldly and robustly articulating and fighting for his policy proposals, Obama is emerging as a cautious pragmatist who is more obsessed with "bi-partisanship" than seizing the moment to create substantial change in this country. Time and time again, President Obama has advocated or settled for less than the power of his mandate, popularity and majority in the Congress suggests was possible. I am beginning to ask when Obama will decide to stand and fight for what he promised. The first sign of concern came when President Obama appointed an economic team led by seasoned Wall Street insiders, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, who some analysts argue were key players in financial institutions whose reckless practices precipitated the disastrous free fall of the U.S. and global economies.
It is difficult to imagine how they can think outside the box when they have been inside the box for so long. As a consequence, the economic recovery plans proposed by the Administration lacked the vision and scope to shape a more socially responsible economy. From the outset, Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, contended that the economic stimulus package needed to be at least 1 trillion dollars to have significant impact. But instead of putting forth and fighting for a budget of 1.2 – 1.5 trillion so that he would have leverage in the negotiations, Obama offered up a package of only 800 billion. Eager to have "bi-partisan support for his plan, he meekly watched the budget get trimmed to 785 billion in a compromise that only three Republican Senators signed off on.
In the mortgage rescue plan which, was supposed to bring relief to those on "Main Street," Obama quickly bowed to the conservative mantra that home buyers who bought homes they couldn’t afford" should not be eligible for relief. Instead of standing firm and educating the American people about the deception and malicious, greed oriented intent of mortgage brokers and lenders, Obama essentially disqualified a category of people who have been most seriously victimized by the sub-prime mortgage debacle. When the revised Toxic Assets Recovery Program (TARP) was unveiled, it was a sweet deal full of incentives and rewards for the bankers and financers who created the crisis and billions of dollars of risk for the taxpayers if the program fails. And, while the focus has been placed on saving existing private financial institutions, Obama failed to lay out a plan to strengthen and expand community-based financial institutions like credit unions and community banks or even a public/federal bank, a people’s bank, to compete with the Barracudas on Wall Street. The so called bail-out of the auto industry followed a similar pattern. Indeed, the industry was allowed to dangle in the breeze, while huge concessions were forced on the union and its retired workers. The Administration’s proposed regulation of the financial industry and the new energy bill have some decent features but fall far short of the bold changes required to permanently check the greed of the moneyed interests. But, Obama’s most critical lack of leadership thus far has been the failure to stand up and fight for his signature pledge to deliver health care to the 47-50 million people who are currently uninsured. As a State Senator in Illinois, he embraced a Single Payer system as the most cost effective and efficient way to deliver health care for all. And, though I have consistently argued that progressives must build a movement strong enough to create the political space for Obama to operate, the converse is also true. President Obama could use his position to educate the public on the merits of particular policy prescriptions and aggressively mobilize grassroots support for the proposals he’s advocating.
This is certainly true when it comes to the issue of universal health care. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that "Americans overwhelming support substantial changes to the health care system and are strongly behind one of the most contentious proposals Congress is considering, a government run insurance plan to compete with private insurers." This is the "public option" feature in the bills being advanced by committees in the House and the Senate. Obviously many progressives prefer HR 676, the Single Payer bill sponsored by Congressman John Conyers which has more than 70 sponsors. Moreover, there is a vibrant movement called Health Care Now which is mobilizing significant public support for HR 676 around the country. Given Obama’s stated views on Single Payer, these factors would seem to offer an ideal opportunity for him to educate and lead on this issue. Instead of choosing to support Single Payer, he has settled on a hybrid formulation which includes a "public option" within a system that will include plans offered by the insurance industry. Frankly, having a meaningful public option as the single-payer component of the final bill would be an acceptable fall back position. But, there is a danger that the public option will be shelved. The Republicans and the insurance companies hate Single Payer and see the public option as a Trojan Horse, which will ultimately evolve into a Single Payer system. What has President Obama’s strategy been as the debate rages in the Congress?
On occasion he has hinted that Single Payer has merits but has been unwilling to stand up and fight for it. His initial posture was to take what seemed like an uncompromising position in favor of a public option. In his most recent press conference, however, he refused to draw a line in the sand in favor of a public option as a component of the legislation he would be willing to sign. When the strategy should be to fight first and compromise when necessary, Obama has apparently capitulated before putting up a fight. Therefore, the outcome is predictable; the insurance companies will carry the day. There will be no public option in the "bi-partisan" plan which is adopted. Millions of Americans will secure health care coverage. Unfortunately, it will be within a system that is ultimately doomed to crash from spiraling cost to the government and taxpayers because the program will be tailored to meet the pecuniary needs of the insurance industry rather than the health care needs of the people. This outcome could be avoided if President Obama were willing to stand and fight!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org