February 11, 2007
More Shamefaced Obama Skepticism
To be sure, my piece on Obama in The Guardian is part of the online edition, not the print. But I encourage folks to read it. As I write there, I really loathe the position of Obama-skeptic. I'm no less able to glimpse his potential for greatness than anyone else, and my gut tells me that his base instincts, averaged out over foreign and domestic policy, are more progressive than either Hillary or Edwards (I think Edwards is more progressive on domestic, but Obama quite a bit more on foreign policy). And he's a politician so good his critics feel guilty questioning him! But his popularity, and the ease of his political ascent, and his emphasis on unity leave me concerned that he's more interested in bringing the country together -- which is a perfectly valid priority, just not mine -- than fighting for the sort of policies I support.
Let's be the generation that finally tackles our health care crisis. We can control costs by focusing on prevention, by providing better treatment to the chronically ill, and using technology to cut the bureaucracy. Let's be the generation that says right here, right now, that we will have universal health care in America by the end of the next president's first term.
I find that unsettling. He's yoking himself to weak policies that already have achieved consensus, not trying to build consensus around policies which Americans might support, but just haven't been convinced of. And this is a choice. He could just as easily have said:
Let's be the generation that finally tackles our health care crisis. We can control costs by preventing insurers from spending money to figure out how to deny care to the sick, by bargaining with Big Pharma so the focus isn't on giving Americans more medicine but on making them better, and by at long last delinking insurance from employment so our entrepreneurs can innovate and so no worker need ever fear his child's asthma attack while he searches for a new job. Let's be the generation that says right here, right now, that we will have universal health care in America by the end of the next president's first term.
If the rhetoric of consensus were being used to sell a forward-thinking, progressive agenda, I'd feel safer. But what Obama is saying we can agree on is electronic medical records, preventive care, high-risk pools, and universality. We already agree on all that. The Bush administration is already pushing for electronic medical records, as are Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton. No one doubts the utility of preventive care, high-risk pools are becoming the norm (and are mainly a way to take the burden off insurers), and even the insurance industry supports universality, the question is how we get there.
Obama is the most eloquent, most attractive, most inspiring, most promising politician in a generation. I want to see him put those qualities to work in service of an agenda worthy of his gifts. I understand why other politicians need to focus on technocratic incrementalism. He doesn't. He, possibly alone among the contenders, has the rhetorical chops and personal magnetism to change paradigms, to do what Reagan did, to, in Obama's own words, "transform the country." The question is whether he has the courage or the intent to do so. This speech, which was a beautiful, soaring, address, did not provide an answer. And that has to be seen as a choice, because with a few changed words, it easily could have.
February 11, 2007 | Permalink
Even if you want a plan that will cause a battle with "Big Pharma" I don't think you go after them in your announcement speech by calling them a name and saying you think they care more about selling medicine than helping people. Announcement speeches aren't for creating conflict; the media will then cover the conflict and not anything else.
Posted by: Delicay | Feb 11, 2007 12:32:08 PM
"his emphasis on unity leave me concerned that he's more interested in bringing the country together -- which is a perfectly valid priority, just not mine -- than fighting for the sort of policies I support."
This is a false choice; progressive populist policies would do more than anything else to bring the country together. What's wrong isn't Obama's goal, it's his primary ideas for achieving it: bipartisanship, civility, and the like.
But those who think Obama is going to fade overlook what is often overlooked in political discussions: talent, which is just as determinative of outcomes as positions and convictions. The big three all have quite a bit of talent, but Obama has the most.
Posted by: david mizner | Feb 11, 2007 12:48:05 PM
Even if an announcement speech isn't for conflict, he is deluding himself if he thinks that the GOP will not bring conflict into the debate regardless. He will try to argue consensus, but whatever he argues as consensus will by the GOP standard be transformed into the "liberal" position. I think the point that people are making is not that we walk around wanting a fight, but you have to be prepared for one. To the extent his speechifying is milktoast the degree to which people question ulimately whether he has fire the belly. If he wants to have a shot at this, he has to answer this question because its on a lot of people's minds. Ulimately this isn't about policy, it's about defining his own narrative or being defined. It's as simple as that.
Posted by: akaison | Feb 11, 2007 12:51:26 PM
And it's hard not to think his message of consensus has to do with his race, in the context of his ambition. A black man preaching consensus is a lot less threatening than a black preaching a war on Power. That said, his speech yesterday was sharper than his previous ones; it might be a sign of what's to come.
Posted by: david mizner | Feb 11, 2007 12:55:04 PM
"progressive populist policies would do more than anything else to bring the country together."
I disagree. The right wing noise machine will scream and lie and demonize anyone who pursues a progressive anything. Ezra's point is right -- by focusing on things that even Newt agrees with, Obama's focusing on unity, not progressivity.
Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | Feb 11, 2007 12:57:42 PM
"The right wing noise machine will scream and lie and demonize anyone who pursues a progressive anything."
Of course. This doesn't refute my point, which was that progressive policies--or, the enactment of progressive policies--would bring the country together.
After all, Edwards' message also focuses on healing the country's divisions, but he proposes different, more partisan and progressive solutions.
Posted by: david mizner | Feb 11, 2007 1:03:47 PM
Good piece in the Guardian, Ezra, and forget the self-effacement: online versions are more prestigious than print anyways.
A point to consider: In a very, very different way, we had a primary in Canada last year in which Michael Ignatieff was in Obama's position: a good looking, articulate, big thinking character against a whole bunch of real political players (ex-ministers, former hockey players, etc.).
There were several problems with his campaign, but the worst thing Ignatieff did to drown himself was focus too much on policy. It dragged him into the ring kicking and screaming, at which point he looked just like all the other candidates, albeit one with no political experience.
Obama is monumentally more charismatic than Ignatieff (although by Canadian standards Ignatieff was very exciting), but I think he faces a similar dilemma: He cannot really run on policy because he has nothing to show for himself, and also because it's not really who he is. Drag him into the muck of health policy at this moment, and suddenly he's going to sound as dull as John Kerry.
I admire your skepticism: It would be outstanding if he actually had a New Deal to propose. But it's also possible his policy positions will evolve, especially if you, and people like you, press him subtly (since he does seem to read!) and keep making the case towards authentic progressivism.
At the same time, tying a policy rope around his ankles at this moment will drown him. That's always the problem with a charismatic leader: He appeals to all, but who is he really? Might just have to live with the ambiguity while he positions himself.
Posted by: shefa Siegel | Feb 11, 2007 1:04:04 PM
I understand the conventional wisdom that what is most likely to stop Hillary is the emergence of a single "anti-Hillary", but I'm wondering whether two anti-Hillary's that are anti-Hillary in two different ways may take away more support from the preliminary putative front runner.
If there is a "half national primary" on Feb 5, and the vote is divided in that "half national field" in the way it normally is in early primaries, the plan to steamroll the opposition with massive cash may backfire ... by having so many delegates committed to different candidates in the first nominating ballot that a clear majority of committed delegates for anyone fades from reach.
In terms of the traditional politics of selling the candidate as a commodity, Obama is simply a more appealing commodity than Hillary. And in terms of people who think that serious problems require substantial reform, Edwards offers for more substantial reform than Hillary.
Wouldn't it be interesting if the end result of the front-loading in the context of a three (or possibly four) person race was that the VP nomination decision was made the old fashioned way? That is to say, in terms of who can deliver enough delegates to seal up the nomination?
Posted by: BruceMcF | Feb 11, 2007 1:32:23 PM
"He cannot really run on policy because he has nothing to show for himself, and also because it's not really who he is. Drag him into the muck of health policy at this moment, and suddenly he's going to sound as dull as John Kerry."
No, Obama is a heavweight policymaker. He spent seven years in the Illinois Senate passing all sorts of important (and progressive) bills. Consequently he has a far better grasp of national domestic policy than most of his rivals for the nomination, possibly including Hillary Clinton. Foreign policy is probably his weakest area, but he has the ultimate trump card there, namely being right on Iraq from the beginning.
Don't mistake being politically astute with lacking substance. It's a full year before the primaries, and Obama still needs to build the rhetorical foundation of his campaign. The policy meat comes later. But it certainly will come.
Posted by: Korha | Feb 11, 2007 1:49:39 PM
People here are talking about Obama staking out the centrist positions. But, among other things, as Ezra notes, he called for universal health insurance. This is not, last I checked, a "consensus" policy, and it is certainly not "technocratic incrementalism." Obama's skill is in making liberal policies sound centrist, which will do far more to redefine and move the center to the left than any amount of attacking pharma (however justified hte attacks.)
Posted by: bk | Feb 11, 2007 1:56:39 PM
I agree with Korha's comment, and the first one too. This is an announcement speech, and his tone was entirely appropriate for what it was.
Posted by: Armand | Feb 11, 2007 2:00:25 PM
"The right wing noise machine will scream and lie and demonize anyone who pursues a progressive anything."
If "Progressive" were something that everyone agreed was a really good thing, it wouldn't matter and the detractors would not get any tractions.
The fact is that a very large block of voters don't believe these policies are good for the country. Of course these same critics also understand that the people and the agenda is the same even though the name has now changed to "Progressive". They know them better as "liberals" or "Pseudo-Socialists" and worse. The agenda hasn't changed, but curiously, the hard left is forced to make these name changes as the public becomes aware that they are the same ol' wealth transferors and big government proponents.
What name will be next when "Progressive" becomes a dirty word?
Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 11, 2007 2:03:08 PM
Whatever historical analogies might mean, FDR, LBJ, Reagan had known positions, campaigned nearer the center, and used with solid temporary legislative majorities, enacted some pretty radical agendas. Even GWB got his tax cuts.
If you are a charismatic uniter/compromiser, it is fairly easy to play good cop and peel off 5-10 opposition Senators for a year or so. It doesn't take a landslide, super-majority, and detailed platform.
I suspect more of what happens is that somebody like Olympia feels scared and marginalized, Reid says "We don't need her" and Obama says "Give Snowe X and see if she will support Y" Y being further than Reid thought of going.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2007 2:23:22 PM
I certainly disagree that universal health care isn't a consensus position. In the abstract, Wal-Mart, the insurance industry, and Ted Kennedy all support it. In the abstract, it polls in the 80s. It's the definition of consensus. But there's good universal health care and bad, and he's not laying down the markers promising the former. The easiest way to get consensus. of course, is the latter.
Posted by: Ezra | Feb 11, 2007 2:27:40 PM
Ezra, this is very similar to my own reasons to be sceptical (at the moment) of Obama.
Posted by: coturnix | Feb 11, 2007 2:33:48 PM
Consensus, like peace treaties, are what happens when the shooting stops.
I'm kinda curious as to what LBJ ran on in 1964. I doubt the Great Society was fully detailed.
And of course, the New Deal, Great Society, Reagan Revolution were very fragile for a while, and took a decade or so to really become "consensus."
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2007 2:36:35 PM
Give the guy a break, he wants to win. If he had stood up called for single payer healthcare, nationalization of the porn industry and ended with a rousing performance of L'Internationale that wouldve been him finished.
Posted by: Henry hazlitt | Feb 11, 2007 2:38:41 PM
Obama shouldn't be front and center of any fight for progressive policies. He needs people to do that. George Washington didn't stand front and center- he had Alexander Hamilton fight for Federalist principles. Jefferson didn't stand front and center- he had James Madison fight the hard battles. JFK didn't stand front and center on civil rights- he had Bobby push the fight.
After the groundwork is laid for a given policy by tough, progressive advocates, Obama can adopt it as a mainstream position. There should be point-people in the blogosphere, the Congress, and the media who will take the slings and arrows from the conservatives and dish out the hard punishment to conservative interest groups. Any progressive coalition is going to need to have a charismatic person who is "above the fray" to unite the Country around progressive principles after conservative interest groups have been beaten back by surrogates.
I think you're completely ignoring the need for the country to have a person they like at the end of the day to rally around.
Posted by: Joe | Feb 11, 2007 2:44:16 PM
Ezra: I certainly disagree that universal health care isn't a consensus position. In the abstract, Wal-Mart, the insurance industry, and Ted Kennedy all support it. In the abstract, it polls in the 80s. It's the definition of consensus. But there's good universal health care and bad, and he's not laying down the markers promising the former. The easiest way to get consensus. of course, is the latter.
It's true Obama doesn't state a policy preference, but I think his language at least implies that he's looking for a more comprehensive position than the individual mandate for emergency coverage or something like that. Ezra quotes him saying: "Let's be the generation that finally tackles our health care crisis. We can control costs by focusing on prevention, by providing better treatment to the chronically ill, and using technology to cut the bureaucracy."
Good universal coverage, in my mind, has to be based in the idea that we can improve outcomes, lower costs, etc. by increasing access to preventive care. And that's what he states--explicitly--here.
Obama does speak in abstracts here (and rightly so, I think--it was a candidacy announcement not an inaugural speech) but he also discusses.
- Poverty. Really, this is a big deal. Outside of Edwards, very few politicians talk about poverty and raising wages and strengthening unions to help lift people out of poverty. He did not make some abstract reference to "working class" or "middle class." He directly addressed poverty.
- Alternative energy. Yes, this is abstractly popular with everyone. But he does suggest he wants to increase CAFE standards, which is not, exactly, popular.
- Iraq. Yes, withdrawing is no a consensus position. But he has stated a timeline, introduced a bill with a withdrawal timeline, and for that matter, he opposed the war back when opposing the war was likely to get you labeled a terrorist.
Skepticism over Obama is fine, but if Obama can make these positions sound centrist, I think we should be pretty damn happy with him.
Posted by: bk | Feb 11, 2007 3:08:12 PM
Ezra: The question is whether he has the courage or the intent to do so.
Simple answer to easy question: Maybe.
If elected with a large majority and large Dem. majorities in the House and Senate he might display the courage, and act on what I perceive to be an intent (without much evidence, I admit).
He won't, however, raise the standard of significant change to rally the country during the campaign.
One the major reasons why Obama won't campaign as a progressive is that the Dem. 'army' isn't behind him on progressive values and programs, either domestically or internationally. Our Dem. cats don't herd as easily as the Republic Party's sheep.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 11, 2007 3:46:15 PM
"The Right has no intention of ever making a compromise: their definition of "compromise" is "you shut up and do as we say and smile". Obama does not understand this. He is still naively giving them a benefit of the doubt that there is a trace of human decency still somewhere to be found in them."
I suspect this is a common sentiment on the angry left. It's also, in my view, an extremely wrongheaded and counterproductive one. Listening to your rhetoric, one might mistake you for an abolitionist on the eve of the Civil War talking about plantation owners. But this isn't the Civil War, and the other side isn't a malignant evil that can only be defeated by violence. You've fundamentally misjudged the moment that we are in.
"In such a climate, any assertion of shared ideals or common values might seem hopelessly naive, if not downright dangerous--an attempt to gloss over serious differences in policy and performance or, worse, a means of muffling the complaints of those who feel ill served by our current institutional arrangements. My argument, however, is that we have no choice. You don't need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans--Republican, Democract, and independent, are weary of the dead zone that politics has become."
--Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope page 8-9
"It is such doctrinare thinking and start partisanship that has turned Americans off of politics. This is not a problem for the right... after all, a cynical electorate is a self-centered electorate. But for those of us who believe that government has a role to play in promoting opportunity and prosperity for all Americans, a polarized electorate isn't good enough. Eking out a bare Democractic majority isn't good enough. What's needed is a broad majority of Americans--Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill--who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others."
--The Audacity of Hope page 40
Posted by: Korha | Feb 11, 2007 3:50:21 PM
Universal health care may poll in the 80s in the US, but it polls in the 50s at best in Congress, so it really isn't a consensus position. Obama is laying a foundation to take on the Republican Congress, and to do so, he needs overwhelming popular support.
I think we're forgetting how bad the press is, and how quickly the Clinton Rules went back into effect.
Posted by: Kimmitt | Feb 11, 2007 4:09:01 PM
"You don't need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans--Republican, Democract, and independent, are weary of the dead zone that politics has become."
Okay, fair enough. Trite and true. Sounds a lot like John McCain circa 1999. But what the cause of, and solution for, the dead zone? Obama seems to think there's a nonpartisan, non-ideological way to liven up the dead zone, but in truth the causes and potentional solutions are political, partisan, and ideological.
What's unclear to me is whether he actually believes this shit--whether he thinks that there's some real substantive merit to preaching consensus and civiity, whether he's a Gang of 14 member by temperment----or whether he thinks it's his way to reach the White House, at which point he would "discover" ideology.
Posted by: david mizner | Feb 11, 2007 4:21:43 PM
"Universal health care may poll in the 80s in the US, but it polls in the 50s at best in Congress, so it really isn't a consensus position. Obama is laying a foundation to take on the Republican Congress, and to do so, he needs overwhelming popular support.
I think we're forgetting how bad the press is, and how quickly the Clinton Rules went back into effect."
Uhm- isn't this why Presidential leadership is important, or has American politics changed so much that we don't expect this anymore? Isn't this state the reason why Obama, if he wants to be President, at some point before the first vote in the primaries, like everyone else, but say what they will do because their job is to set forth a vision.
Also, there seems to be a lot of denial going on. What exactly is the cause of the strife? Shouldn't you define the problem before claiming kumbaya? If it were tit-for-tat, Obama would have a point. But, is it tit-for-tat, or more like American people want X (often similar to the Democratic position in theory, if not practice), the GOP stands for Y, and we give in to Y because it's what the GOP wants rather than what the American public wants? What did someone say here recently- the definition of bipartisan here seems to be the Democrats want to help the woman put her groceries in the car, the GOP wants to rob her, and in the spirit of bipartisanship, they take half her groceries, beat her up and leave her with a flat tire (or something like that.
I would argue that the American people don't want bipartisanship, they want the politicians to represent their real interest. That means they want, despite the cynacism, to trust that their representatives are doing the right thing. Hence, why they trust their own Congress person, and distrust the Congress.
Posted by: akaison | Feb 11, 2007 4:53:24 PM
Here's some of his ideas on Health Care, from his book
With these principles in mind, let me offer just one example of what a serious health-care reform plan might look like. We could start by having a nonpartisan group like the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) determine what a basic, high-quality health-care plan should look like and how much it should cost. In designing this model plan, the IOM would examine which existing health-care programs deliver the best care in the most cost-effective manner. In particular, the model plan would emphasize coverage of primary care, prevention, catastrophic care, and the management of chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes. Overall, 20 percent of all patients account for 80 percent of the care, and if we can prevent diseases from occurring or manage their effects through simple interventions like making sure patients control their diets or take their medicines regularly, we can dramatically improve patient outcomes and save the system a great deal of money.
Next, we would allow anyone to purchase this model health-care plan either through an existing insurance pool like the one set up for federal employees, or through a series of new pools set up in every state. Private insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna would compete to provide coverage to participants in these pools, but whatever plan they offered would have to meet the criteria for high quality and cost controls set forth by IOM.
To further drive down costs, we would require that insurers and providers who participate in Medicare, Medicaid, or the new health plans have electronic claims, electronic records, and up-to-date patient error reporting systems—all of which would dramatically cut down on administrative costs, and the number of medical errors and adverse events (which in turn would reduce costly medical malpractice lawsuits). This simple step alone could cut overall health-care costs by up to 10 percent, with some experts pointing to even greater savings.
With the money we save through increased preventive care and lower administrative and malpractice costs, we would provide a subsidy to low-income families who wanted to purchase the model plan through their state pool, and immediately mandate coverage for all uninsured children. If necessary, we could also help pay for these subsidies by restructuring the tax break that employers use to provide health care to their employees: They would continue to get a tax break for the plans typically offered to workers, but we could examine a tax break for fancy, gold-plated executive health-care plans that fail to provide any additional health benefits.
The point of this exercise is not to suggest that there’s an easy formula for fixing our health-care system—there isn’t. Many details would have to be addressed before we moved forward on a plan like the one outlined above; in particular, we would have to make sure that the creation of a new state pool does not cause employers to drop the health-care plans that they are already providing their employees. And, there may be other more cost-effective and elegant ways to improve the health-care system.
The point is that if we commit ourselves to making sure everybody has decent health care, there are ways to accomplish it without breaking the federal treasury or resorting to rationing.
That doesn't sound like some weak "consensus" proposal.
Posted by: JeffL | Feb 11, 2007 5:30:46 PM
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