Despite House passage of the health-care overhaul bill on Saturday night, the word “dithering” is getting attached to President Barack Obama, much as “hubris” was tagged to George W. Bush and “undisciplined” applied to Bill Clinton.
But is that fair? After all, Obama has been in office less than 10 months and had to confront a multitude of disasters left behind by Bush. Those included the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a yawning budget deficit, tattered international relations and two open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Plus, some of those complaining most about Obama’s failure to act decisively, the Republicans and the neoconservatives, were party to many of Bush’s policy decisions that have proved so destructive. And Obama has taken on some very tough issues, most notably health-care reform, which has bedeviled presidents for nearly a century.
That said, however, there does appear to be some merit to the “dithering” accusation. Or put differently, Obama has shown a tendency to let himself be diddled.
On health care, for instance, Obama let deadlines slip as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, led months of fruitless negotiations with three Republicans. Finally, Baucus was forced to produce his own bill, whose key features – like health co-ops to replace a public option – have since been jettisoned by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The surviving health legislation itself is a faded image of what Obama promised during the presidential campaign. Though the “public option” survives in the current House and Senate versions, it is anything but “robust,” now just a pale shadow of the cost-saving notion that liberals had expected.
Though the health insurance industry now opposes the legislation, private insurers earlier won concession after concession from the Democrats and no longer fear that 119 million Americans might shift from the industry’s plans to the public option, as one industry-backed group warned last spring.
The surviving House-Senate versions of the public option would be off limits for big companies, whose employee policies make up the largest and most lucrative part of the market, and the public option wouldn’t have rates linked to Medicare, a major cost-saving provision.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only six million Americans would sign up for the House version of the public option and – since they are likely to include a high percentage of sick people – the rates for the public option might even be higher than rates offered by private industry.
One of the few progressive features left in the two surviving pieces of legislation is the House provision to extract more than half of the new health care costs from a surtax on the rich (individuals earning $500,000 and couples making $1 million), raising about $558 million over the next decade.
That provision at least would put the richest Americans who have benefited disproportionately from Bush’s tax cuts in position to subsidize a national health insurance program. But the Senate version contains no such surtax and its prospects remain doubtful.
So, the American people have watched the messy health-care debate play out this year with Obama seeming to have little control over the process and with even members of his own party rebelling. Thirty-nine House Democrats joined with all but one Republican to vote against the health bill that won by the narrow margin, 220-215.
This drawn-out health care battle also has undermined Obama’s ability to show decisiveness in other areas.
Because he has struggled to keep his top legislative priority (health care) on track for so long – and must worry about losing any Democratic votes in the Senate – he has not been able to confront other problems very aggressively.
For instance, Obama’s goal of a Middle East peace breakthrough as the central element in resetting U.S. relations with the Muslim world has been sidetracked, in part, by recognition that any ramped-up pressure on Israel to make concessions could anger powerful neoconservatives, both in Congress and the Washington press corps.
Already, neocon Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has warned that he will support a Republican filibuster to kill health-care reform if any public option survives, and the Washington Post’s neocon editorial page has lashed out at important features of the House bill, such as the surtax on the rich.
In the convoluted politics of Washington, even seemingly disconnected issues – like health care and Middle East peace – can be joined by a desire to weaken a political foe. The neocons well understand that if Obama can be broken on health care, he would lack the political clout to pressure Israel into making significant peace concessions.
At minimum, by hobbling Obama politically, the neocons would guarantee continuation of the status quo in the Middle East, with Israel continuing to consolidate its settlements in the West Bank and keeping alive prospects for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
A weakened Obama also could open the way for restoration of neocon control of U.S. foreign policy if the Republicans can retake Congress and the White House over the next three years. That, in turn, could revive neocon dreams of having the United States wage war against Israel’s enemies in the region, most notably Iran and Syria.
While some of this neocon dreaming may seem farfetched today, it should not be forgotten that just a few years ago, this agenda of “regime change” was at the heart of U.S. government policy and had the staunch support of powerful institutions, like the Washington Post. Plus, despite the Bush disasters, the neocons retain extraordinary influence in key Washington power centers.
The neocons, after all, got their first real taste of Washington power under Ronald Reagan after working to undermine President Jimmy Carter’s policies, both domestic and foreign, when Carter was pressuring Israel to achieve peace with the Palestinians. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
As Obama struggles with health care and is unable to focus on Middle East peace, he is watching other opportunities for change slip away. Angered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to halt expansion of settlements on the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he will not stand for reelection in January.
That could open the door to either a unified Palestinian leadership under the more radical Hamas or a power vacuum. Either way, negotiations could be off for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the Muslim world increasingly is viewing Obama’s outreach, such as his much-acclaimed Cairo speech, as all talk, no action.
The Israeli-Palestinian stalemate has other consequences. By failing to reverse the anti-American hostility that surged across the Muslim world during Bush’s presidency, Obama confronts diminished prospects for winding down the Iraq War in a way favorable to U.S. interests and tamping down violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Those international problems then reverberate back to the U.S. political scene by creating more concerns about troop levels in the war zones and prospects for future terrorism.
Already, Obama has delayed a decision on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan, on top of the 68,000 Americans already there. While Obama says he wants a thorough policy review, he has come under criticism, on one side, from Republicans for “dithering” and, on the other, from the Democratic base eager to end an eight-year-old war that many analysts doubt can be won at this late stage.
If Obama opts for some middle ground – like sending a lesser number of new troops – he is sure to anger both sides.
Similar halfway measures on the economy – backing away from nationalizing some too-big-too-fail banks last winter and agreeing to a scaled-down $787 billion economic stimulus plan rather than an amount over one trillion dollars that some economists said was necessary – have left Obama in another fix, getting hammered by Republicans for both spending profligacy and ineffectiveness on the jobs front.
Though the Obama administration says its emergency steps pulled the country back from the brink of a depression and saved jobs, the current 10.2 percent unemployment rate is being blamed on Obama and the Democrats, further eroding their political strength.
So what can Obama do?
The President might want to learn something from a scene in the movie “Bull Durham” when the minor-league manager shakes up his “lollygagging” baseball team by confronting the players in the shower and hurling bats at their feet.
Obama must grasp that more lollygagging on health-care reform won’t help. He has little choice but to pressure the Senate to take up the health bill right away. In doing so, he would need to show some anger and engage in serious arm-twisting. Inspirational speeches only get you so far with Congress.
If Senate Majority Leader Reid can’t muster the 60 votes to stop a Republican filibuster, then Reid must turn to alternatives, like passing as much of the bill as he can under the majority-rules provisions of “reconciliation.”
Clearing away the long and dragged-out health-care battle would open the legislative calendar to deal with other pressing concerns, such as financial regulation and unemployment, as well as the environment and global warming.
In all these matters, Obama must find a far more assertive – and more populist – voice than he has shown to date. So far, he appears to have made a calculation that his only hope is to finesse the jaded and right-leaning Washington Establishment, rather than to confront it.
Yet the problem is not just Obama or even the Democrats.
While many on the Left decry Obama for his wimpy behavior and denounce congressional Democrats as sell-outs, the American progressives also must look in the mirror. The truth is that the political/media crisis facing the United States is systemic, and progressives share in the blame.
Over the past three decades, the American progressives have largely forsaken the need to build national media institutions and think tanks, ceding that strategic ground to the neocons and the Right. That misjudgment, in turn, has left national politicians (and mainstream journalists) vulnerable to pressure from well-funded right-wing attack groups.
The Left’s response usually is to sit in the stands and shout complaints -- or to veer off into unrealistic strategies, like supporting third parties “to teach the Democrats a lesson,” as happened in 2000 when supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader claimed they couldn’t detect “a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
The Left’s institutional weaknesses in this “war of ideas” have left many progressives pinning their hopes on some knight-in-shining-armor politician who rides off to slay all the dragons. However, this unrealistic concept invariably disappoints. When the knight-politician falls short or cuts deals, the progressives are left muttering about betrayal.
The other way to go would be for progressives to commit serious resources, time and talent to build media institutions and think tanks (especially near the front lines of Washington, rather than on the West Coast).
These institutions would engage in a daily conversation with the American people about what the facts are and what can be done, while also creating defensive shields for national politicians and journalists when they actually do the right thing.
Arguably, the biggest problem with the health-care debate has been the Left’s lack of a reliable message machine to counter the Right’s predictable denunciations of “big government.” That “government is the problem” theme has worked since the days of Ronald Reagan in large part because the American people haven’t heard a consistent counter-argument.
Not only has that “big government” attack line excluded a serious debate about a single-payer health-insurance system but it has devastated congressional support for a “robust” public option. Politicians, especially in states dominated by right-wing talk radio and pro-Republican newspapers, are terrified to argue that government sometimes can offer the best answer.
If the American Left is to serve any role other than as grumbling critics in the stands, it must go beyond excoriating politicians and the mainstream media. It must get into the game – and stop “dithering.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on November 9, 2009.