As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Obama And The Base

Everybody has gotten to this before me, but I did want to say a few words about Obama and the progressive base. You can see in recent polling that the slide in the President's numbers is coming not from the right, who have already lined up against him, but from the left. Liberals and Democrats are not seeing the change they voted for, and are responding by rejecting this President. Liberals tolerated a lot of the slow-walks and aping of Bush policies in the areas of civil liberties, gay rights, the banks, and other realms, but the wobbling over the public option was the last straw, as they say. Digby explains it well.

There have been a series of issues, one on top of the other and each one more distressing, in which the fundamental principles on which Obama ran have been either betrayed or compromised. It's been too much, too many, in too short a time, from civil liberties to secrecy to cozying up with industry behind closed doors. These aren't minor issues --- they go directly to values and principles.

He's losing trust among the base because he appears to believe that those constituents have no serious claim on his agenda. Even the appointment of Sotomayor did not reflect a liberal commitment beyond the breaking of ethnic barriers, which is wonderful, but cannot be seen as a substitute for progressive principle. Bargaining away the one substantial progressive demand in health care reform is seen as simple bad faith.

I'm not one to trust politicians, but I recognize that most people do, even ardent partisans. They are busy, they don't want to have to follow every detail of the political sturm and drang or try to read between the lines of the NY Times every day to try to figure out what's going on. They more or less inform themselves before an election about what their representatives say they believe in, they assess their sincerity and commitment to certain broad principles and values, and then they leave the governing in their hands, trusting them to do what they said they would do to the best of their ability. Obama promised a lot. A whole lot. And he garnered the trust of many millions of liberal minded folks. When that kind of trust is betrayed, it's very hard to get it back.

I certainly hope they are not fighting the last war. Bill Clinton did not suffer a backlash in his base because he was operating in an environment of conservative dominance and a very weak left flank. The base was desperate and demoralized. But it's not 1996 anymore and that strategy just won't work this time. The conservatives are a clownish group of know-nothings whose approval ratings are in the single digits. They should not, in a democratic society, have the power to shape strategy to the extent they are and the president should not be empowering them. Big business and finance is even more discredited and has no trust among the poeple whatsoever. Openly catering to them in this environment is nothing short of defiant (and politically suicidal.)

Glenn Greenwald and Joan Walsh make largely the same points. I want to say a few things about it.

• There is no question that the Obama Administration isn't getting a lot of credit among the public at large from essentially preventing a Great Depression. If the environment was such that the crises happened a year earlier, and Bush's bumbling put us firmly into Depression, Obama would probably have received a lot more credit for digging us out that preventing things from getting to that point. You can argue with his team's methods for preventing such a crisis, namely shoveling all kinds of money to the banks. But EJ Dionne is right - this prevention has led conservatives to go right back to talking up deficits and spending and big government, as if big government didn't just prevent the worst economic calamity in post-war history.

• That said, Obama isn't blameless for the problems with the base. Indeed he has cozied up to industry in unseemly ways - playing golf with the head of UBS, a company his Justice Department is trying to investigate for harboring illegal tax shelters, is just a metaphor. Bungling multiple gay rights issues and the open hostility of the DOMA brief was just stupid.Joe the Nerd was correct when he told the President on Michael Smerconish's radio show that his "knees were buckling" a bit by trying to compromise with people who have no interest in such a compromise. And the civil liberties outrages are truly contemptible, amounting mainly but not totally to covering up the sins of the past, and in turn abetting them.

• The actual tipping point for all of this was not necessarily the weak-kneed language on the public option, but something that happened a little before, when it came out that the backroom deals Obama cut with industry would save them plenty in the health care reform and shield their profits. Bob Herbert wrote about this last week, but it's been rumbling under the surface for a while. In fact, it was my question to the President at that blogger conference call a few weeks back:

I asked the President about this tension between these buyoffs to stakeholders and his goal to "bend the cost curve" and make health care cheaper and more effective in this country, and here's a paraphrased version of his answer.

"I cannot expect the hospital association, for example, to sign up for something they don't think is right for hospitals and exepct them to back reform. So I understand what they're doing to protect their interests. I think we can negotiate and find a good way to go about this. In theory we could cram down additional savings, but to have the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the drugmakers, the insurance companies, all of them on our team, that does help us move the process forward. Theoretically, there should be enormous savings inside the system. We all know that we pay more for health care than we should, and we shouldn't need additional revenue. But that's harder to do in practice, because all these powerful interests block the efforts. What I think is that we can get a framework where reform begins, one with an insurance exchange, and a robust public option, concrete reductions in cost, prevention, health IT, comparative effectiveness research, and it will be possible to achieve greater savings with a more efficient system down the road. And we can revisit the policy 10 years from now and possibly see even more savings than what was scored and anticipated."

He's basically admitting that he allowed industry to cut favorable deals to keep them on the side of reform. This is still reverberating. Today's New York Times has hospital associations crowing about the benefit to their members over the 10-year window in the form of reimbursement payments for the newly insured. Drug companies are seeing a freer hand to deny access to affordable drugs abroad so they'll keep their end of the bargain on health reform. When people started to put two and two together, and realize that the health reform bill looked more like a giveaway to the stakeholders, they got extremely upset. I don't begrudge hospitals and drugmakers the ability to make money if they are healing more people, but there's a real disconnect when the groups who profited from the broken system stand to profit more off of something called reform. THAT was the moment things went off the rails.

• Nevertheless, I think that Obama has a chance to turn this around. It's not just about progressive outreach, however; it's about the actions he will take, or be forced to take. The President late last week started to use forceful, moral language about the need for health care reform, and that's great too.

It has never been easy, moving this nation forward. There are always those who oppose it, and those who use fear to block change. But what has always distinguished America is that when all the arguments have been heard, and all the concerns have been voiced, and the time comes to do what must be done, we rise above our differences, grasp each others’ hands, and march forward as one nation and one people, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us Americans.

This is our chance to march forward. I cannot promise you that the reforms we seek will be perfect or make a difference overnight. But I can promise you this: if we pass health insurance reform, we will look back many years from now and say, this was the moment we summoned what’s best in each of us to make life better for all of us. This was the moment when we built a health care system worthy of the nation and the people we love. This was the moment we earned our place alongside the greatest generations. And that is what our generation of Americans is called to do right now.

But actions will now drive the outcomes, because liberals have heard enough talk throughout the campaign and the first seen months of the first term. Whether the White House likes it or not, the public option has become central to most progressive conceptions of the health care debate. Calling it a source of confusion or a sliver or reform simply won't work. And liberals who are needed at the end of this fight will not work for a policy in which they do not believe. The President put himself down this rabbit hole, and only he can bail himself out. Because progressives are going their own way.

For many Obama supporters who supported President Obama's candidacy because they believed he would rally the public to pass a reform agenda, the White House focus on legislative chess in the healthcare debate has resulting in grumbling about whether or not President Obama is the President they voted for. Fairly or unfairly, Obama now faces a rising tide of doubt in his administration from the very supporters who have backed him most steadfastly since the election.

Many of these supporters are now using internet tools and small donations to signal that their support of healthcare reform anchored in a robust public option would be stronger than their support for an Obama administration willing to negotiate away or weaken a public option.

Thus, weeks before any final bill has actually been written, the healthcare debate has already brought about the most significant change in the American political landscape since Obama won the Iowa caucus to become the leading contender for the Democratic nomination.

The idealists who elected the President are siding with their ideals rather than their candidate.

Obama can choose to live up to those ideals, and turn the tide at this stage of his Presidency, or he can play the same games he's been playing, and lose the base - perhaps permanently.

...Arianna has some very good thoughts on this.

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