If politics were as we hoped, President Barack Obama would use his national speech tonight to announce that he is instructing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass the strongest health care measure that can be achieved with 51 votes. In explaining why 60 votes is not required, Obama would recall the Senate’s infamous history of using anti-majority procedures to deny civil rights for African-Americans. He would also explain why democracy is subverted when 41 Senators are allowed to block the will of 59 of their colleagues, the President and a majority of the 435-member House of Representatives. Noting that Senate procedures allow the reconciliation process to pass key components of health care reform with 51 votes, Obama would urge the Senate not to disempower the tens of millions who went to the polls to vote for “Change” in November 2008.
But Obama will not give this speech. Instead, he will use his national bully pulpit to build support for risking another 34,000 lives in a politically, morally, and strategically indefensible war in Afghanistan. Obama’s decision is a bitter pill to swallow for Obama’s political base. It is made even more troubling by the President’s refusal to similarly rally the nation against Senate efforts to weaken health care reform.
Barack Obama has an historic opportunity to use the Senate health care fight to remind the nation how Southern Senators long used anti-democratic procedural rules to deny constitutional rights to blacks. But a President who found a “teachable moment” over a Harvard Professor’s arrest is passing up a golden opportunity to place the current Senate health care debate in its historic context.
Obama’s Focus Shifts
Unfortunately, Obama’s failure to recast the Senate procedural roadblocks as contradicting the nation’s democratic principles is part of a larger shift. In recent weeks, the President has scarcely been heard rallying the public around strong health care reform.
Remember when we were told that Obama was so single-mindedly focused on health care that he could not travel to Copenhagen to support Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics? And that when he did make the trip, his press staff was careful to insist that he did not miss any of his regular work?
The Olympics episode reaffirmed the public’s perception of Obama’s extraordinary single-minded focus. In contrast to Bill Clinton, Obama kept his eye on the prize, and was “locked in” on health care reform until passage.
Well, during the height of the Senate debate, President Obama was in Asia as part of a ten-day overseas trip. He then returned to a highly publicized state dinner for the President of India, which was followed by his public focus on Afghanistan, not health care reform.
So while Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman presumed veto power over the entire health care bill, our President remained silent. Nobody expects Obama to ignore other problems until a health care bill passes, but at a time when it appears that business as usual could triumph over Change, his leadership was lacking.
Obama’s Political Strategy
By announcing that he is sending more troops to Afghanistan prior to the Senate passage of health reform, Obama is giving a huge victory to the Republican Party’s “war without end” agenda prior to delivering a single major victory to his progressive base.
Obama’s political strategy involves one of two political calculations.
In the best case, Obama is not rallying the public around health care because he already received assurances from Reid that the Senate will not be an obstacle to real reform. This would mean that the current public drama is entirely for show, as the deal is done.
This analysis suggests that Obama felt politically comfortable sending more troops to Afghanistan because he knows he will soon hand his base a big victory on health care. When this is added to Obama’s going to Copenhagen to promote climate change, and his recent announcement that he would address comprehensive immigration reform early in 2010, Obama can tell his base that, while we disagree on Afghanistan, I delivered significant progressive change.
But there’s an equally plausible worst-case scenario.
Under this analysis, Obama’s team have concluded that the Republicans have shifted so far to the right that they have no ability to challenge for control of the House or Senate in 2010, or for the presidency in 2012. This means that Obama need only deliver marginal gains for progressives while primarily courting political independents (many of whom are former Republicans).
This means that Obama is not vested in keeping progressives happy around health care, but is content to declare a measure far weaker than the House version a landmark victory. And by delivering on immigration reform and trying his best on climate change, Obama can say that he brought “Change” regardless of the social, economic and human costs of Afghanistan.
Obama Playing with Fire
In November 1994, Democrats disenchanted by President Clinton’s failure to implement his “Putting People First” campaign platform stayed home despite Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” that would devastate progressive interests. Why then does Obama’s team believe that Democrats disenchanted by Obama’s increasing troops in Afghanistan, and his potential cave in on health reform, will be sufficiently scared by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck into voting in 2010?
And if the health care outcome shows that the U.S. Senate will not allow progressive change even with a 60-vote Democratic caucus, then what argument can the Obama team make to infrequent voters in 2010? If electing Obama and strong Democratic congressional majorities in 2008 did not bring real Change, why even bother voting?
Obama presumably realizes that while he won the White House by instilling hope, that such feeling can quickly transform into anger, despair, and then hopelessness. That’s why Obama’s Afghanistan decision makes the enactment of a progressive health care measure essential, and why the President should be far more personally engaged in a struggle that will set the course for both his presidency and the Democratic Party.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook
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