Obama’s Surge

After six months in the White House, President Barack Obama is still looking good as he settles in. But he needs our help.

Some liberals have lost hope in Obama because he has failed to fulfill some of his campaign promises. He hasn’t closed Guantanamo. He hasn’t stopped the military from discharging gay service members. He hasn’t thrown Dick Cheney in jail. (OK, he never promised that, but we had hopes.)

We cut Obama some slack, considering that he was elected during the meltdown of the financial industry worldwide, amid warnings of an economic collapse that could rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. Wall Street demanded and got a bailout, first from the Bush administration and a bipartisan Congress last year. The financial wizards got a second helping from the Obama administration, which followed up with a $787 billion stimulus package that was approved by the Democratic Congress in February over the almost unanimous opposition of Republicans.

Two of our favorite Nobel-laureate economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, complained that the bailout gave too much to banks and their creditors with little regard for taxpayers. They called for a bigger stimulus package to get the economy moving again, though Krugman has said that the increase in public spending probably saved us from another Great Depression.

Krugman wrote at his New York Times blog (7/19) that many progressives supported Obama over Clinton in the primaries “because they thought Clinton would bring back the Rubin team; and what Obama has done is ... bring back the Rubin team.”

We, too, wish Obama was listening more to Stiglitz and Krugman instead of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, but banks apparently have stabilized and are reporting profits again. The stimulus program may have been too small to reverse the recession — but it has done some good: Economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com wrote June 22 that without the stimulus plan “real GDP would have declined nearly 6% in the second quarter” rather than the 3% decline that is now estimated. And the stimulus will continue to be spent over two to three years to sustain long-term economic recovery.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs but General Motors and Chrysler (as well as Ford) are still in business. There is nothing structurally wrong with the US car industry that an economic recovery couldn’t cure, but if John McCain had been in charge, GM and Chrysler would liquidated and the GOP would be celebrating the destruction of the United Auto Workers.

Survival of a downsized GM and Chrysler may be small comfort to the autoworkers and retirees who have lost their jobs and health benefits in the restructuring, but their plight should put the pressure on Obama and Congress to make sure the banks loosen up credit to generate a recovery. Congress should not let the fear of deficits stop it from providing interim benefits for the 14.7 million unemployed and health coverage for all Americans.

The best thing Congress could do for the economy is pass a universal health care bill that enables entrepreneurs and small businesses to obtain health coverage at a reasonable price. But conservative Democrats have joined with Republicans in an attempt to block the best-laid plans of Democratic leaders. Douglas Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office, gave the obstructionists a talking point June 16 when he warned that none of the bills he has seen control spiraling health costs. Six “centrist” senators — Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) — asked Senate leaders to slow the pace of health reform efforts.

Of course, spiraling health costs are a problem, but the first priority is making sure the millions who can’t pay for private insurance have access to affordable health care. If conservatives were serious about controlling health costs, they’d join the effort to expand Medicare to cover all Americans and let the federal health plan do the tough bargaining needed to cut costs.

Failing that, a health reform plan that includes a government-run “public option” that anybody can buy into is an acceptable compromise. Private insurance companies need the competition and the rest of us need the assurance that when we show up at a hospital, our illness will be treated without bankrupting us.

House Democrats have produced a good start on a bill that sets up the choice of private or public insurance plans and pays for universal care with a surtax on Americans with incomes over $280,000. Some senators are aghast at the thought of taxing the rich. That has House leaders reconsidering whether they want to push a tax increase that the Senate won’t accept.

Democrats, if you won’t accept a tax on the rich to pay for health care for the poor and middle class, what good are you?

Obama has only begun to fight but he needs our help. Though the corporate media has focused on his “declining” approval rates, the Gallup Poll showed him “slipping” from 60% June 22-28 to 59% July 13-19. A Washington Post poll also showed 59% approval, with the public trusting Obama over the Republicans on health care by a 54-34 margin.

Unlike Clinton, who in 1994 presented Congress a bill which was promptly trashed, Obama is letting the committees write their bills with his input. He doesn’t expect the House and Senate to produce perfect documents, but if they can get bills to a conference committee this fall containing most, if not all, of the key points, then he will be in a good position to spend the political capital to bring the bill home. In the meantime, it is up to the grassroots to keep Congress moving and impress upon conservative Democrats that delay is not an acceptable option.

Single-payer advocates won a potential opening in health reform July 17 when the House Committee on Education and Labor 27-19 approved an amendment to the House’s health reform bill allowing states to create single-payer health care systems. John Nichols noted at TheNation.com that the amendment by Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was supported by progressive Dems as well as some Republicans who want states to be able to set their own agendas. Some of the bill’s backers feared that the GOP views the amendment as a “poison pill” that would make the bill harder to pass. The committee approved the amended bill 26-22.

The Kucinich amendment removes a legal obstacle to states that choose single-payer plans. The US Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) pre-empts state health care plans from challenging employer-based health care plans. 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on July 14 voted down a similar amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Voting with him were Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), but other Dems and all Republicans voted against it.

Sanders, who expects to propose a similar amendment when the bill reaches the Senate floor, noted that the US already has not only a working single-payer system in Medicare but also a socialized medical system in the Veterans Health Administration — and while both systems could be improved, neither the nation’s elderly nor its veterans would give up those programs. “Our job is not to protect the private health insurance industry; it is to provide quality, cost-effective health care,” he told the committee.

We hope Sanders also offers an amendment on the Senate floor that would implement a single-payer system. It probably won’t get 10 votes, but at least it would let single-payer advocates know where they stand. We hope that a “public option” will offer superior benefits at substantial savings from what is available from private insurers. In the meantime there is no good reason that Congress should stand in the way of any state that decides it wants to try out its own single-payer insurance plan. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist.