I know there's a growing impatience with the Obama
Administration among progressives. And I see a lot of articles and blog
posts out there expressing a growing sense that he's abandoning his principles
for political expediency. There's this crazy notion that 30 years of neocon
politics can be made to go away with a wave of his hand; that he can simply
bring everyone in this often bipolar country together for a chorus of Kumbaya,
which all of us who have ever had a brush with the wingnuts knows is pretty
much impossible. But if he's going to keep the moderates on his side — and
make no mistake; we need them on our side — he has to at least look like he's
including Republicans in the process, even if they choose to bite his hand.
Believe me, my son sits in a tent in Kandahar as I write
this. He joined the Army because he felt as if the only way he could pay for
college would have been that way, or to leave college with a six-figure debt. I
truly wish the president could snap his fingers and all of our bad neocon
dreams will go away immediately.But that's not how life works. A lot of things
about the neocon view of things have seeped into the culture, and it will take
a phenomenal amount of work to reverse them.
I hereby beg progressives to have patience. President Obama
hasn't abandoned his principles; at all; if anything, he's done just the
opposite. He's living by them, and the end result of his presidency will be something
pretty special. Don't let your ADD get the best of you; it's better to do
something right than to do something fast.
By way of example, let's address his approach to gay rights.
Yes, it's true; President Obama could simply wipe out "Don't Ask, Don't
Tell" with the stroke of a pen. In one moment, he could give gay soldiers
equal rights with everyone else. But there's a problem with that., in
that it would be temporary.
And hasn't that been the problem all along? When Bill
Clinton was in office, he made a lot of things go away by signing executive
orders. But when Dubya became president, and Republicans had the majority
in Congress, most of them went away.
If Obama eliminated the policy with the stroke of a pen, the
next Republican president could then reinstate the law with stroke of HIS pen.
It takes LEGISLATION to eliminate a policy like this; we need a law on the
books; preferably one that would require a strong majority to repeal.
That is the key to Obama's approach, and you should
understand what he's doing. He's trying to change things, folks. That's what
you elected him to do, and that's exactly what he's doing. But
"change" isn't just reversing the laws you don't like. The change
he's making is in how government works; how it interacts with people and, just
as importantly, how we interact with it. It also requires changing a culture in
which most people think a 401(k) was created as a retirement account (it
wasn't), that "living within your means" means being able to afford
all of the monthly payments, and in which people truly believe that anyone can
become a millionaire through hard work. (It's never been true, but people only
started believing it was possible during the neocon era.)
We are coming out of a lot more than eight years of Bush,
folks. If we consider change as just "doing things differently than
Bush," then we have that already. Though many insinuate that
Obama is continuing Bush policies, it's simply not true. Everything about the
Bush Administration was a secret; there is more openness in the Obama
presidency than we've seen in 30 years. We have an administration that is more
open to outside influence than any in 30 years. But most importantly, this is
the first administration in more than 40 years that has encouraged the American
people (you know, US) to be a greater part of the system. Remember how
John F Kennedy implored us to "Ask not what your country can do for you;
ask what you can do for your country"?? Yeah, it's like that. He's trying
to get us fired up, to tell the people who actually make the laws what we want
them to do, rather than dictate terms and then dare them to follow his lead.
Look at Obama's approach on health care for an example.
It would have been easy for the Obama Administration to
throw out a blueprint and then do what the Clinton Administration did 15 years
ago, and declare "my way or the highway." Instead, he got behind a
plan, HR 3200, and he's been trying to influence the plan without dictating.
One thing my management experience has taught me is that leadership is about
drawing out the ideas of others, not imposing your ideas upon everyone else.
He's not "capitulating," or "acquiescing to right wing
demands" or any of the silliness I've heard recently. He's trying to
demonstrate a willingness to bring all sides together and come up with a
solution to our health care financing problems. Yes, we all know the
attempts will be fruitless. But if we're going to actually make progress on
things, we need moderates with us. And let's face it; every time Obama reaches
out to the Republicans and they bite him, he wins and they lose, politically
Contrary to what many say, President Obama has been very
clear about what he wants. It's just that what he wants is more "mission-oriented"
than we're used to. This is what he's said he wants:
dependable health insurance coverage of all treatment deemed necessary by
can't add significantly to the deficit.
And if you look at those, he's likely to get all of them.
The first four are a slam dunk. The only two that aren't are
the last two. But his actions have pretty much guaranteed the first four, and
made the last two far more likely than they looked to be not long ago. There
were a lot of doubts about the public option for a long time, as the mere
concept makes conservatives nervous. But by opening the floor up to alternative
ideas (which many have called a "sell-out"), he encouraged Max Baucus
to push forth his "co-ops" idea, and showed just what a dog it is. In
the process, he made the public option look a lot more viable. By offering
Republicans a chance to input their ideas, he's forced their hand, and made
them look like complete losers. If you think the "Party of No" label
isn't sticking, wait until next election season, folks. And by demanding that
health insurance reform not add one thin dime to the deficit, he's blunted the
one legitimate argument right wingers have against health insurance
reform, including the public option. Which is why they've had to resort to
making shit up.
I know everyone wants to see him "fight." We'd all
love to see him go up to Glenn Beck and slap him silly. But that doesn't get a
health care bill passed. While we've become used to Republicans dictating
policy, real democratic politics is about compromise, and finding something
most (not all, but most) people can live with.
President Obama is playing Republicans and Blue Dogs in
Congress like a cheap fiddle, and a lot of progressives seem to be missing it.
What a shame, because it’s a hell of a show. The right doesn’t know whether to
shit or wind their watches, as the old saying goes. But you have to look at
what happens after he does something to figure out why he does it. Every time
he puts out a trial balloon that shows softness on the public option, he
simultaneously gets the left fired up and makes the Republicans scream in
horror, because the only part of the bill they can even think of attacking
(again, without making shit up) is "government-run health care." You
think they're going to come out in favor of rescission? Think they're going to
go on the record as being in favor of "pre-existing conditions"? A
lot of what he does is with the express purpose of shutting them up. It's the
"put up or shut up" strategy. And it works. Every time he goes a
little soft on a creation public insurance system, support for it rises.
We will get substantial health insurance reform this year. If
you want to know what a miracle that is, consider this. In March 1933,
after four years of Hoover and the Great Depression and with 25% unemployment,
it still took Roosevelt TWO YEARS to get most of the New Deal through. Even the
Social Security Act, which should have been a slam dunk, didn't pass until
1935. The first Medicare proposals were put through in 1960, and it took
another SIX YEARS to pass them. If you follow the machinations of Congress,
then you have to know how lightning fast the current health insurance reform is
actually happening, in relative terms. In eight months, Obama and the Democrats
engineered a massive stimulus package, and they’re about to pull off the
greatest change to the health insurance system in more than 40 years, and to do
so during a bad recession.
And they’re doing it in spite of some very real political
realities that progressives like to pretend aren't at play here, but they're
important in a democratic environment:
people have insurance. Yeah, that's right, even though there's a crisis,
to be sure, between 75-80% of Americans have health insurance.
people don't pay most of their insurance premiums. Yeah, that's right;
most Americans get their insurance through their employer, and employers,
on average, pay 76% of their health insurance premiums. That means, if
someone's actual insurance premiums doubled from $600 to $1200 over the
last decade, all they saw was an increase from $150 to $300, on average.
Not great, but it's not likely to set off alarm bells.
people don't get sick. Even more true is that most of the people who have
insurance never get sick; the insurance companies have kind of designed it
that way. That means, most people don't have personal experience with an
insurance company screwing them, and they don't necessarily know it could
happen to them.
In other words, in an environment in which most people
aren't likely to see the problem first-hand, President Obama and the Democratic
Congress are on the verge of a major health insurance reform bill.
And though you may not have been listening closely, he's
also put banks and financial institutions on notice that they're next. As soon
as the economy stabilizes, expect a government buyout of those toxic assets,
and then listen to the institutions that are holding those
"securities" whine. If you think the "debate" over health
insurance has been contentious, wait until they start screwing with the banks.
I was just talking to a teller at Bank of America a few weeks ago, and she is
under the impression that, if the government starts regulating the fees people
pay on their accounts, she'll be out of a job. Of course, that's ludicrous, but
that's how people have been trained to think.
One problem with so many of our laws over the last 30 years;
is that we never actually codified a lot of them. A similar problem is that
while neocon Republicans controlled things for six years earlier this decade,
they did codify things. Of course,
even before that, they were able to sneak some doozies through. Obviously, you
all know about Gramm-Leach-Bliley, right? You should, because it caused the
economic meltdown we're living through right now. The problem wasn't that banks
and other financial institutions were breaking laws, it's that they weren't breaking
laws. You know about the Patriot Act, but do you remember the Intelligence
Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004? How about the series of Executive
Orders that Bush pushed through during his last few months in office that don’t
expire and can’t be overturned for at least another year or two? In many cases,
President Obama is left with breaking current law, or trying to figure out a
smart way to do the right thing under the current one. I don’t know about you,
but I’ve had enough of presidents just breaking laws they don’t like. So, he
has to change them.
The biggest barrier progressives face in moving this country
forward is impatience. We belong to a culture in which users deride
computers that take more than 30 seconds to boot, and who actually won't
use one browser if it takes one second longer to open a page than another
browser. If a movie runs more than 90 minutes, we complain that it's too long.
We carry Blackberries and iPhones because, well, an hour is just too long to
answer a Facebook comment or a Tweet., and five minutes is too long to make our
bosses wait, even on a day off. We're an ADD nation, and we've become more
concerned with doing things quickly than doing things right. Obama is a
throwback, to a certain extent. We can show all the impatience in the
world, but he's not having any of it. He's demonstrated a focused intent
to make changes permanent, not just quick, and we should actually be glad of
He has so much to do, and everyone out there has a different
idea what should come first. He has to end two wars, and do so in a way that
doesn't result in a major security hazard to us and our allies. He has to fix
the banking system, but he can't do that without legislation, and no one can do
it until the financial system becomes stable. He has to deal with an
intelligence structure that was drastically changed twice between 2001 and
2004, and he can't just ignore the law and do what he wants, even if the law
sucks. That's a precedent we don't need.
Then there are political realities. I know, Democrats have a
majority now, and we should be able to run all over those damn
Republicans. But we had 56 seats in 1994, the last time a Democrat won the
White House and tried to jam a health insurance plan through Congress, and
later that year, Democrats lost Congress. Majorities can be tenuous, folks, and
given the ADD this country faces at this point in our history, it would be
dangerous for President Obama to be like President Bush and act like he's
"right" about everything, and dismiss everyone else's judgment if it
doesn’t comport with his. Elections are won in the middle, not on the left or the
right. Moderates appreciate it when a politician considers all sides. But
don’t worry, if we give them reasons to do so, they will eventually come down
on our side.
There is one thing about progressive rhetoric that bothers
the hell out of me, to be quite honest, and that is the notion that, if a
politician isn't seen openly "fighting" for something, then he has no
balls, and he's not working to get something done. If I hear one more
progressive say they wish President Obama was like Bush or Reagan, I'll beat ‘em
up. (that’s a joke, folks; I’m quite the pacifist.) There are all kinds of ways
to get what you want., but the LEAST effective way is to scream and
yell and stomp your feet, especially in a democracy. In the last 80 years,
Republicans have had control of the government exactly twice, and both times,
they screwed it up completely because they did exactly what some progressives
seem to be demanding President Obama do. We need a government that’s inclusive,
and we have to understand that politics is about the art of compromise. And if
you think of compromise as a “sell-out,” or a “capitulation,” or some other
nonsense word, then you don’t get how the system works.
Let me clue you in on something, folks. Neocons didn't win
so many elections over the last 30 years because they were such great
politicians, and masters of the system. They won because progressives ceded
power to them. Progressives have become masters of "take my ball and go
home" politics. And if we keep this up with Obama, we'll be watching it
happen again; mark my words. Republicans have never been strong politically; we
just stayed on the sidelines and effectively weakened the Democratic Party.
I'll get into this more in a later post but, put simply, the difference between
progressives and the far right has been that we somehow think we have the
numbers to effect change by threatening to stay away from the polls or vote for someone who can't win if we don't
get our way. Meanwhile those on the right know they have to show up en masse to effect change. In a
democracy, tell me which of those strategies is more effective in the long run.
If a group of progressives goes into a Democratic Party
meeting, they can change everything. if they stay outside and scream at the
building, they're affecting nothing. Get it? I've spent more time than you'll
ever know as the only progressive at a Democratic Party meeting. Gee, I wonder
why the party seemed to have moved right all those years… How did that
What many progressives seem to see as "selling
out" or "capitulation," or "appeasement" is actually
good politics. Good politics is not about imposing your will on others; it’s
about getting others to see your point of view, and getting them to agree to as
much of your agenda as possible. One reason we have such an emergency in health
care right now,is precisely because progressives dropped the ball on the
Clinton plan in 1994. I was there. It didn’t go far enough, and it didn’t
eliminate insurance companies completely was the cry from most progressives I was
dealing with. But it would have
eliminated pre-existing conditions, it would have prohibited insurance companies
from denying claims short of fraud, it would have created an employer mandate,
and it would have covered all but about 5-10 million people. It also would have
eliminated most of the inflation in health care, which means we’d all be paying more
reasonable premiums by now. If progressives had gotten behind the Clinton plan,
all we’d be doing right now is advocating for a public insurance option to
patch the system. Not only that, but single-payer would be a realistic leap,
rather than the pipe dream it actually has become, given the political realities we're faced with.
As progressives, we have to learn that baby steps are better
than no steps at all, and that complete reform rarely comes all at once.
President Obama wants to fix problems, but he can't fix
everything in two years, and he'll be hard pressed to fix many of them within
four years. But eight months? Come on, folks. Relax a little. If we play our
cards right, this is the beginning of a long reform period; one that will undo
a lot of bullshit that has been more than 30 years in the making. In order to
change everything that needs changing, we'll have to change the culture, not
just a few laws. That will take a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of
activism. Instead of complaining and wringing your hands about how
"disappointing" Barack Obama is, transfer that negative energy to the
positive, and start turning the people — the moderates — out there to our
side. I mean, we got him elected, against all odds. Where's the energy to get him what he wants?
President Obama is trying to return us to an earlier time,
when government made laws and people could count on them to be there until we
decided to change them. When he said he would effect change, he meant it. He's
interested in creating laws that will outlive his presidency, not just orders
that future governments can simply reverse with the stroke of a pen. He's
looking to create a comprehensive program for energy generation and efficiency
that will shape the next generation; not simply keep gas prices low and get us
to switch to the "alternative fuel of the day" for now. He's looking
to create a national health insurance program that will cover everyone and
prevent private insurance excesses. And he wants to create a level playing
field for everyone that can't be undone the next time a Republican takes the
Have patience, everyone; it takes a while to build a legacy
that the next Republican Administration can't simply sign away. Keep fighting, but focus on the real enemies of progress in this country. I've had enough of the progressive circular firing squads, thank you very much.