Obama’’s big speech: Math trumps rhetoric

by Alexander Cockburn

Obama’s big speech: Math trumps rhetoric If Barack Obama had delivered Wednesday night’sspeech to Congress three months ago, by now he mightwell be signing health reform into law. Ted Kennedy wouldhave alive to supply the crucial senate vote that put theDemocrats over the top.But three months ago, Obama and his advisers wereeager to avoid the debacle suffered by Hillary Clinton’s healthplan, which, after months of secrecy, she presented to Congressin 1993. So the White House evolved the foolish plan of lettingthe Democrats in Congress draft the necessary laws.This summer, no less than five committees on Capitol Hillwent to work. The contours of reform swiftly became murky,particularly since Obama offered no leadership. Indeed it wasunclear what precise plan he favored and he made the hugetactical mistake of discarding, right from the start, the “singlepayer” model — based on the NHS or Canadian health insurancesystem — favored by the left.As Vicente Navarro, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkinsand an advisor to Hillary Clinton back in 1993, accuratelyremarked earlier this week, Obama “needs single-payer to makehis own proposal ‘respectable.’ (Keep in mind how MartinLuther King became the civil rights figure promoted by theestablishment because, in the background, there was a MalcolmX threatening the establishment.) This was a major mistake madeby Bill Clinton in 1993. The historical function of the left inAmerica has been to makethe center ‘respectable.’ Ifthere is no left alternative,the Obama proposals willbecome the ‘left’ proposal,and this will severely limitwhatever reform he willfinally be able to get.”By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, Obama washeading into moderately serious political trouble. The ravingsof the nutball right were what caught the headlines, but what nodoubt bothered Obama’s political strategists was the growingdisillusion of the left end of the Democrats with Obama. Theprophet of hope and change was selling them out on every front:escalating war in Afghanistan; billions for bankers; and nowon health reform Obama was selling out to the insurance andpharmaceutical industries. Unhappy with Bill Clinton in 1994,a lot of liberal Democrats sat out the midterm elections and theRepublicans swept into power in the Congress. Rahm Emanuel,Obama’s chief of staff, was working for Clinton back then, andthe memory is no doubt vivid in his mind.Did Obama’s high-stakes speech to Congress Wednesdaynight turn the tide? It was well written and elegantly delivered.Since columnists such as the liberal Maureen Dowd of he NewYork Times had been dumping on Obama for being a wimp, thespeechwriters gave him plenty of muscular flourishes: “Well, the timefor bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the seasonfor action.”

Theleft was duly rewarded with a “public option,” albeit offered almostapologetically: “But an additional step we can take to keep insurancecompanies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option availablein the insurance exchange. Let me be clear — it would only be an optionfor those who don’t have insurance. No one would be forced to chooseit, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. Infact, based on Congressional Budget

Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up.”

Obamasolemnly pledged that “like any private insurance company, the publicinsurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on thepremiums it collects.”

Itwould also, he said, keep pressure on private insurers to keep theirpolicies affordable and treat their customers better, “the same waypublic colleges and universities provide additional choice andcompetition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant systemof private colleges and universities.”

Thislast was a strong point, that would have resonated with many in hisnational audience, and Obama swept into his peroration, reading aletter from Ted Kennedy that had some in his audience in tears andreminding his audience that big government does have its virtues,because without it, “markets can crash, monopolies can stiflecompetition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.”

Alas,math trumps rhetoric. The numbers are against the president. Obama mayhave regained some political stature, but he doesn’t have the votes inthe Senate to survive a filibuster and he and his staff have notgenerated the requisite political ruthlessness to whip theCongressional Democrats into line. Despite the flexing of rhetoricalmuscles, he’s still a nice-guy president who still prates on aboutbipartisanship, even as the Republicans Wednesday night sat on theirhands and one of their number, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, shoutedout, “You lie,” when Obama said correctly that his plan wouldn’t offerservices to illegal immigrants (which it most certainly should).

Publiclyinterrupting the president to berate him as a liar is not done in theUS Congress, and Wilson swiftly apologized. But it was an emblem ofsomething that most definitely did surface this summer: white racehatred for Obama. Wilson’s uncouth outburst was a nasty reminder of howunrestrained this is swiftly becoming.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through

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