Obama, the Public Plan and the Bully Pulpit
Posted by Eric on June 22, 2009
Sweeping health care reform looks to be faltering. The public option, a government-run insurance plan that competes with private insurance, may be nixed in the final bill altogether. This would ostensibly be the time for Barack Obama to champion the public option as he makes his way across the country touting the necessity of health care reform. He could forcefully make the case for a public plan and ask the crowd (and TV viewers) to call their senators and demand action. But he isn’t doing that. As Paul Krugman notes, “centrist” Democratic Senators like Blanche Lincoln from small states where “one or at most two private insurers dominate the market” have been wary of the public plan. And this makes sense since powerful insurance companies can raise lots of money for a candidate. But you know who else can raise a lot of money? Barack Obama. Obama and Joe Biden could spend a couple hours calling major bundlers for each of these Democrats and, I suspect, raise as much or more than the insurance companies would. That, along with a public crusade for a public option could conceivably go a long way. But neither seems to be occuring.
Obama is a clear-cut pragmatist, sometimes to a frustrating degree. Some liberals are starting to wish there was more truth to the “socialist” and “leftwinger” labels that conservatives have been hurling at the president. But there’s never been any real reason to believe that Obama harbors any radical impulses. Even the fake reasons, like Jeremiah Wright, are probably just twisted evidence that Obama has always been as cautious and pragmatic as he is today. He had a radical black reverend when he was a state senator from a heavily black district in Chicago. When he was running for president in what’s still a heavily white country, he severed ties with Wright.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama has been dismissive of gay rights and willing to bend to conservative framing on matters like deficit reduction because he was stocking up on the political capital to ram through the big issues. But this is the big issue! And Obama is staying almost entirely out of the specifics of reform. That may change, or maybe his cautious approach has some justification I am missing. We will look back years from now and truly reflect on the wisdom (or lackthereof) of that strategy. But right now, it’s very worrying.