Media analyses of President Obama’s
health care speech were divided on whether he had indicated serious support for
a public option or had, instead, cleverly tossed a bone of “recognition” to the
progressives while simultaneously demanding that they drop their insistence
that the health care reform undercut insurance company profits.
The confusion, for once, is not with
the media but with the incoherence of a centrist politics. Obama wishes to relieve the suffering
of Americans, but he does not wish to challenge the profit-uber-alles old
“Bottom Line” of the competitive marketplace. Unfortunately for him and for most
Americans, he can’t have it both ways. FDR
recognized that–and so was willing to stand up to the vested interests of the
class from which he emerged, not only rhetorically, as Obama is willing to do
at some rare moments like his Health Care speech, but in the actual policies he
Goodness knows, Obama has tried. He
understands the suffering caused by the military-industrial complex’s
insistence that American security can only come through economic, military and
diplomatic domination of the world, and would like to alleviate it. He would
prefer a world of peace. But he can’t get that without challenging the
fundamental equation of security with domination and presenting an alternative,
e.g. that security might best be achieved through generosity and genuine caring
about the well-being of others around the world, manifested in the kind of G-8
funded Global Marshall Plan that has been introduced into Congress by Keith
Ellison (D,Minn). So, instead, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan.
Obama is aware that unless we can
get down to not more than 350 particles per million of carbon emissions that
life on the planet is finished. Standing up to the corporate interests that
have resisted this and managed to eviscerate his environmental program into a
corporate-giveaway called “cap and trade” would require championing a carbon
tax that he fears would make him unpopular with the corporate polluters and
with the public whose consciousness these polluter are able to shape through
Obama knows that a single-payer
program–extending Medicare to everyone–is far more rational than what he has
proposed to Congress, but he also believes that eliminating the insurance
companies, hospital chains, and other medical profiteers would require a battle
beyond his current capacities.
To address any of these problems
fully would require a fundamental challenge to the old Bottom Line. Obama would have to call for a New
Bottom Line–to advocate for defining governmental and private corporate policies
as “rational,” “productive” or “efficient” not only to the extent that they
maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and
caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance
our capacities to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred
and our capacities to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical
amazement at the grandeur mystery of the universe.
He actually reached in that
direction momentarily at the end of his Health Care speech to Congress by
seeming to endorse Senator Ted Kennedy’s
“large-heartedness: a concern and regard for the plight of others” which
he defined as “our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that
we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others
are there to lend a helping hand.”
Yet over and over again in the
details of his plan it was not this large-heartedness that he championed, but a
belief in the positive outcomes of the competitive marketplace. What Obama
omitted from mention is that the ethos of that marketplace, which rewards
selfishness and materialism and “looking out for number one,” as the “common
sense” that guides individual as well as governmental behavior, is a product of
the fear that we cannot count on others, that there will be no one there to
take care of us, and that we must therefore maximize our own advantage lest
someone else do so for themselves in ways that will permanently hurt or
Obama can’t help us overcome that fear until he does so himself. He has to allow himself to know, and then help Americans to understand, that most people actually do want to help each other, get delight in being caring and loving, feel fulfilled when they are able to improve the well-being of others. Most people already know this about themselves, but are unsure whether it’s true of their neighbors or others. Obama’s most important contribution would be to fight for policies based on this understanding and to challenge those who believe the world is filled with people who are primarily self-seeking and aggressive. Unfortunately, he can’t do that while remaining loyal to the centrist ideology and its insistence that the aggressiveness manifested in the current competitive marketplace, is what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
Imagine, for instance, if Obama had started his speech with the idea of “we are all in this together” that he ended it with, and then applied that to each specific part of his program. Sadly, that was impossible precisely because his actual program is in conflict with this at several points. He won’t support health care reform that raises the deficit. How can that be justified by a President who raised the deficit to help bail out the people who caused the banks and investment companies to fail all of us! He promises not to give any benefits to immigrants–but then “we” are not “all in it together!” He is willing to use government to coerce people into his plan those who would not voluntarily join, but not to force insurance companies to lower the prices (for example, by regulating their prices at the expense of lowering their profit rates or simply by creating Medicare for All. He tries to make a public option plausible by comparing it to public community and state colleges, but also assures the insurance companies that they have nothing to worry about from his plan because “the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” Yet the public option will not be open to those of us who already have private health care insurance. These limitations guarantee that the public option will not achieve the goal of lowering prices or obscene levels of profits. Public universities and community colleges have never been able to sustain themselves on the tuitions of those who use them. If that had been the requirement from the start, tens of millions of Americans would never have obtained the benefits of a public education that enabled them to get better jobs and go on to make valuable contributions to society in turn. If the principle had been that these colleges could not contribute to state or federal deficits, they would long ago have folded. So where is the “we” who are “all in it together” when crippling the only part of his plan that really makes an attempt at a universal solidarity?
There are two views about Obama that are at odds in the liberal and progressive world. One holds that Obama really shares all this same perspective with us but has lost his own moorings because he is surrounded by the kind of Inside-the-Beltway realists and pragmatists. On this view, our task is to do what the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ conference June 11-14 2010 is aimed to do–”Support Obama to BE the Obama we Voted For–not the Inside-the-Beltway pragmatist and realist whose compromises have disempowered his followers and led many people to become cynical who were previously his supporters.”
The other view is that he actually does really believe in the capitalist marketplace not only as “the best that can be achieved at the moment” but as an embodiment of his ideals. In that case, our task is to respectfully support him to live up to his own ideals as much as possible, since in so doing he will both push to the limits what can be accomplished in the current system and eventually be forced to acknowledge that a truly humane system is incompatible with the Old Bottom Line and that we actually need a whole new society based on the New Bottom Line. Actually, that’s another focus for our NSP conference next June as well–to bring together the forces that actually want to build a very different kind of reality, know that it is needed now, and want to define the contours of that new society. Ultimately, people in this perspective know that what we need is a spiritual progressive political party. But a first step now is to bring such people together to begin to cooperate (difficult enough, given the degree to which the capitalist marketplace has forced most of these groups to compete with each other for scarce financial support and public recognition). The need for such a party will become increasingly clear as Obama’s centrism yields policies that do not eliminate but actually perpetuate human suffering.
But we’ll be praying that we are wrong about this, and that in the short term at least Obama a. gets vindicated and b. succeeds in reducing suffering. Only, deep down, in our most rational moments, we know that if the system remains largely in place, a
nd only its worst and most humanly and environmentally destructive parts are partially constrained, in the not-too-long-run the suffering will increase. And it is this recognition, not disrespect for Obama that demands of us that we not simply be satisfied with being the left-wing of an Obama cheerleading squad, but lovingly respectful critics of his direction. How to do this in a way that does not immediately marginalize us among the many spiritual progressives whose loyalty to Obama would make them angry at us for even raising these questions is something that keeps us up at nights, not only because those Obama loyalists are part of our spiritual progressive project, but because we ourselves genuinely admire Obama’s decency, morality, and intelligence.
Liberals and progressives who feel that they have already compromised too much by giving up on “Medicare For All” and embracing a watered-down Public Option are right to resist Obama’s pressure to drop that public option–not because no good could possibly be achieved without it, but because the ideas underlying the dropping of a public option are the same ideas that inevitably lead us to the militarist/domination worldview, to environmental irresponsibility, and to a health care system that will continue to privilege profits over human needs. And that is why Centrist politics appears so incoherent and self-contradictory and unable to relieve the suffering moderates like Obama genuinely desire to heal.