Will Obama’s Abandonment of the Public Option Take Congressional Democrats Down In 2010?
By BAR managing editor Bruce Dixon Bruce A. Dixon
Dateline 08/19/2009 – 00:05 | Sequelpost with Black Agenda Report
Presidents run every four years, but Congress is elected every two. This president said we should judge him by whether he delivers comprehensive, affordable, accessible health care to every American in his first term. Team Obama’s relentless opposition to single payer, a position he once supported, and his recent abandonment of even a watered down public option, and a health care plan that doesn’t cover any of the uninsured till 2013 may not affect the president till his own re-election. But House Democrats must face the people in 2010.
Obama’s abandonment of the public option is the last straw in a long list of betrayals
By the time last weekend when Barack Obama and his team formally relinquished their commitment to the health care “public option”, it had been effectively dead for months.
At its best, the “public option” was never more than a half-hearted, hypocritical pretense at compromise in the direction of the Medicare For All single payer system that a majority of American doctors and a majority of the American people have long favored.
When the public option was first conceived, it was as a government-created but privately administered health care insurance plan that open to everyone that would cover more than 120 million Americans, not just the fifty million currently uninsured. Since it would be run by private insurance people on contract it would never achieve the overhead savings of Medicare, but its sheer size would enable it to bargain the prices for drugs and procedures and for insurance itself downward.
In the minds of those heavily invested in the myth of their president as a progressive, the public option was an incremental step toward Medicare For All, an illusion which has protected the president from criticism thus far. As late as last month, Howard Dean appeared on Democracy Now to cynically assure its audience that the public option was “…best thought of as Medicare.” But it never was.
In the real world, the Obama administration and its team, who include both House leadership and many blue dogs, as well as the Senate’s Mac Baucus walked in the door compromising the already half hearted compromise even further. Instead of appointing Howard Dean, who was at least committed to the rhetoric of universal health care, Obama appointed Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius as HHS Secretary, who came in the door proclaiming that the administration’s vision of a “public option” was explicitly designed to keep it from ever evolving into single payer or anything like it.
As Black Agenda Report predicted more than two years ago, the Obama plan was to be based upon the deeply flawed Massachusetts model, which essentially makes health insurance like car insurance, a product the law requires you to buy from a private vendor with few or no regulations to ensure the coverage is effective or the price is reasonable. In Massachusetts today, according to Dr. David Himmelstein, a family making $33,000 per year can be required to spend up to $9,000 per year in premiums, co-pays and deductibles before the state-mandated insurance kicks in. Like the Massachusetts plan, the Obama vision of “health insurance reform” has always been a bailout for insurance companies, who would get a whole class of new policy holders part of whose premiums would be paid for by tax dollars.
At the beginning of the process, as Black Agenda Report has chronicled in past weeks, the Obama administration cut separate deals with the insurance and drug companies to shrink the public option to a mere 10 million people, a size too small to force the prices of private insurers downward, and to protect the profits of drug companies by not reimporting Canadian drugs or driving their prices downward too.
Parallel between Clinton and Obama Presidencies?
Like Bill Clinton who when pressed on a point of his own self-contradiction schooled us that it depended “…on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is…”Barack Obama’s lawyerly retreat from single payer health care (2003), to universal health care (2008), to health care reform (early 2009) and now to health insurance reform has cost the president mightily. Both the real style and substance of the Obama presidency are becoming more and more clearly visible.
After Bill Clinton’s ruinous bipartisanship gave us NAFTA, which the majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats didn’t want, and failed to win health care reform which similar majorities of Democrats did want, he lost the Congress halfway through his first term. House Democrats know that while President Obama isn’t up for re-election till 2012, they have to stand and be counted, or counted out, in 2010. Obama may have told us to judge his first term by whether or not he delivers affordable and comprehensive health care to all Americans, but House Democrats know it is they who will be judged first, and harshly unless they distance themselves from the president’s duplicity and failure.
Dozens of congressional Democrats are reportedly threatening to withhold support of any health care package that lacks the name or the smell, if not the substance of the public option. But will they do it? Do they have the backbone for that? Those of us with memories stretching back a year or two recall some of the same Democrats were vowing to oppose Patriot Act 2, and the 2006, 2007 and 2008 war budget supplementals. Democratic senators threatened to filibuster heinous Supreme Court nominees and patently illegal passes for telecoms who engaged in illegal surveillance of millions of Americans, and more. None of it happened, and that was with a Republican president facing a Democratic majority in the House and a near majority in the Senate.
There was and still is a kind of mass movement afoot in the nation to achieve universal health care for everybody. The president used this movement to leverage himself into office, and now safely behind closed doors with Big Pharma and Big Insurance, has betrayed it. Betrayal is something that leaders do from time to time. Betrayal can hinder or stall a movement, but it does not look like this betrayal will end this movement. Not yet, anyway.
In the last session just under a hundred Democrats in the House endorsed HR 676. House leadership has committed to a floor vote in September on the Enhanced Medicare For All Act. The collapse of the public option makes the upcoming vote on Medicare For All vastly more important. Passage isn’t all that likely, but the 2010 primary season has already begun in many districts. A number of blue dog Democrats who never even supported the public option will be challenged, as will some that don’t vote for HR 676 in September, assuming House leadership allows the promised vote.
Sentiment for Medicare For All is strong everywhere BUT in the halls of Congress. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is one senator who refused even to schedule town meetings on health care, not because he fears the birthers and right wing lunatics disrupting it, but because Illinois has large, aware, and profoundly upset networks of people who remember Obama’s support for single payer only a few years back. Help us win the congress and senate, they recall Obama asking, help us change the occupant of the White House, he told anybody who was listening, and we can get single payer health care. Town meetings in Illinois would send a different message than Democratic leadership or media want to see. So there will be no town meetings, or no c overage of them in the many cities across the land where single payer advocates are too numerous and well organized.
Congress ignores at its own peril the real America that’s is still out here. It’s the America that corporate media do not cover — the America that on health care, on war and peace and many other issues is well to the left of what we see on CNN or MSNBC. This is the America that overwhelmingly opposes the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the America that loathes insurance companies, banksters and the whole class of predatory speculators. It’s the America that is still demanding health care for all its citizens, whether the president intends to go along or not.
Reanimating the corpse of the public option may save Barack Obama’s reputation for the moment. As BAR Executive editor Glen Ford points out, Obama may be content now to pass anything with the name “heath care” on it, and declare a meaningless victory. But all bills come due eventually, some sooner than others. Obama’s coverage of the uninsured, if it ever passes, does not begin in part till 2013. Obama runs for re-election in 2012. But the Congress runs in 2010.