Obama, Health Care, Viet Nam, and Sleepless Nights

I’ve had a tough time sleeping the last several weeks. And it’s been nothing personal. It’s been something national. It’s health care reform, and how it has been hijacked, and how the smartest politician we’ve seen in years is getting his ears boxed by some people who I simply cannot understand.

I am now watching a group of young people make the fascinating move into adulthood. There are new marriages, new families, infants, toddlers, college — all the experiences that are part of starting out in life. Some of these young people have good jobs; some are struggling; some are trying to live below the radar or off the grid. But they all have dreams, and they all are alive with the freshness of possibility. Their lives spread out before them in rich abundance, and I envy them. But I also fear for them. They are, with few exceptions, dancing on life’s tightwire without a net — they do not have and cannot afford health insurance. It’s not that they don’t want it. They can’t afford it. The simple cost of living — food, rent, college or college loans, daycare, cars and car insurance — are just too much. They scrape, they dream, and they survive. But one broken bone, one pregnancy, one unexpected illness, and those dreams are dashed. It is wrong and it is unfair. And there are, for reasons that are almost impossible to fathom, a great many people who seem to think this is just fine. And this is what has been keeping me awake.

It is not just fine. It is not fine that our young people cannot afford to get sick or have an injury; it is not fine that people in mid-life cannot change jobs or make any move in life because they would lose health coverage; it is not fine that older folks can have the savings they have worked their entire lives to acquire turn into a tiny joke in the face of some catastrophic medical bill. And I think most people of good heart believe this. Yet whenever the issue of health care reform comes up in America, some truly dark forces rise up to twist it, distort it, and kill it.

Who are these folks, and how does this always happen?

Well, we know who the folks are. They are the Wall Street-driven insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies and various for-profit entities whose ox would be gored by meaningful health care reform. That they are venal and cold-hearted is unfortunate, but understandable. They are in business to make money, and they are responsible to people and organizations who have invested in them with the intention of making money.

Why they are so powerful is less understandable. But, accept for a minute that this is just the way it is and just the way it is probably going to be. The question then becomes, why do people of good heart get manipulated so easily and readily by these cold forces? And, perhaps more importantly, how?

The answer seems to lie in a core xenophobia that looks upon America as the best place and the best way in everything we say or do. This kind of naive “island mentality” allows those with the tools to do so to manipulate our understanding by creating a dangerous “other” out of everyone or every place that does things differently. We are not part of a dialogue of cultural options; we are “the last best hope” that must stand up against whatever bogeyman is currently pressing its face against our window.

In the case of health care reform, this bogeyman is “socialized medicine” or “government run health care.” Never mind that almost anyone who has ever been sick or injured in a country with universal health care comes home filled with wonderment at how smoothly their treatment went; never mind that most of the people thundering against reform are counting the days until they can get their single-payer government-run Medicare. These are conveniently disregarded in favor of fear stories about lines and rationing and now, absurdity of absurdities, government-designated dates and times of death. It is simply mind boggling how such stories and such narratives gain currency.

But this has been the broad method of the opponents of health care reform since day one back in the Truman administration: scare people rather than inspire people. Make change into something dangerous. Define the unknown as a dark and frightening place.

Now, here is where the disconnect comes. People of intelligence recognize this tactic and they recognize that it is driven by for-profit entities that cannot change the way they operate or think, lest they cease to exist. Such a situation is eminently understandable. But why do the politicians allow this kind of transparent manipulation to color their thinking? You can say it has to do with lobbying dollars; you can say it has to do with constituent pressure. Yet, none of that makes sense. When you look around you and see the young people and the families and the elderly living without coverage and living in legitimate fear of what this means, how can you not rise above your desire for reelection or corporate dollars and, instead, do the right thing?

I have said this before: one to one, Americans are some of the kindest, most giving people on earth. But something happens when we think as a collectivity. We are far too prone to become cruel, suspicious, and vindictive, all under some clumsily constructed guise of “individual freedom” and “choice.” We close our hearts, we close our pocket books, and we close our minds. We become moved by fear, not by compassion and hope. Look at this grotesque war in Iraq: our politicians could raid our children’s bank accounts because we were afraid. Look at our bailout of the banks: we wrote them a blank check because we were afraid. The lesson is clear — make people afraid and you can do anything in their name, whether it is to rob their bank accounts or close their hearts and minds.

I don’t want to make this into a political diatribe, because then I will lose my Republican friends in this monologic discussion. And though I must point out that it is primarily the Republicans and the odd Blue Dog Democrats who have started waving the banner of fear, my real sadness and my real source of sleeplessness is the Democratic response. The Democrats know that this is their chance to do something good for the country and for the children and families and elderly. They know this is their best chance and probably their last chance on health care, probably for a generation. Yet they are letting the opponents define the game.

First of all, and most transparently, they are letting the Republican and Blue Dog opponents define the battle. As with prescription drug reform, they have allowed the opponents to make it an argument over the size of a closet when the issue is how to rebuild the house. If you can convince people that the real issue is not health care reform, but a “public option” within the insurance company-driven game, then even if you lose, you win, because there has been no reform, only a reshuffling of the deck. So you draw the Democrats into this argument, make them deal with it as if it is life or death, then allow them a measure of victory, and everyone goes home thinking that we’ve got reform. No, what we’ve got is a different configuration of shelves in the closet. The structure of the house is still weak and crumbling and unsustainable. But the Democrats are trumpeting their success, though the success is precious little success at all. And the house continues to sink.

This brings us to the biggest failure — President Obama. What happened to the man who could inspire with oratory? Where is the bully pulpit? Why is he allowing idiotic arguments about his birthplace or government-mandated death dates to bring him down to the level of scratch-and-bite? This is a man who sailed above the ordinary with a rhetoric of inspiration. Why is he now not inspiring us with the possibility of good rather than arguing with those who are professional purveyors of fear? How can he have gotten bogged down in tactical battles while the strategic objective is slipping away? This issue, my friends, is his Viet Nam — not Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s become Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson trying to make arguments about the necessity of certain actions, while the whole war is slipping away. And, sadly, the casualties this time are the young people I see trying to make their way in a world that is pretty much stacked against them.

Let me say it clearly before I close. The Bush administration is being revealed as having been little more than a bad man manipulating a hand puppet. The Obama administration rode in on a wave of excitement that was made even greater by the failure of that previous administration. Obama had our hearts and minds. We were ready as a country to follow him anywhere, even though his opponents were vociferous and determined. The Democrats chose him over Hillary because they didn’t want a tactician, and the nation embraced him because he had a vision. Now, in the process of governing, he has found himself fending off an attack of political ferrets, and, as a result, he appears to have taken his eye off the ball. He is talking tactics, not strategy.

Perhaps he has a grander vision; I’d like to think so. But if he doesn’t, he’s losing. And if he loses, those young people struggling to raise families, pay for college, pay rent, and put food on the table, will be the biggest losers.

If I had his ear, here’s what I’d say. “Don’t let health care be your Viet Nam, Mr. President. If you do, no wall we build in Washington will be big enough to hold the names of all the casualties your failure will leave in its wake.”

But I don’t have his ear, and I’m not sleeping well these nights.

10 comments

  1. Anita Biers says:

    This was wonderful. My friend and I took a long walk last night discussing just this very subject. She works mainly with Republicans and her own family call her to watch programs spreading the same fear that is being spread against health care reform. I hope the President can rise above all of this. My own daughter who works for minimum wage just lost her medicaid insurance and is now without any coverage. She cannot afford to pay over $300 a month for health insurance. What is she to do? Thank you for your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Janie Peak says:

    It would be nice to get this piece to the White House. It seems we have a president who is willing to listen and reconnoiter. (I am always a Pollyanna.)

  3. Sherri K. says:

    You don’t have his ear ….. but you could. Obama is a man who is willing to listen, and you are a published author with the eloquence to make a convincing presentation. All you need do is share a “blue moment” with him!

  4. Richard says:

    Kent, I appreciate your thoughts on health care but I’m afraid the bad guy is Congress, not people like me, nor the insurance companies nor big pharma. With the federal government not having the money to fix medicare or medicaid or social security, it now wants to add a new multi-billion dollar benefit program. Unwise. the only way to do that is to tax me more, squeezing more blood from the turnip that already been tapped out. There just are not enough “rich” to make a difference even if you take all their money. All current problems are the result of government getting too greedy and taxing the living dayulights out the economy. The discipline needed to get out of this rut is found in Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. That comes first. Then when the lessons are well-learned, better, more economical health care somewhere down the road.

  5. Jonathan Klate says:

    Reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog I decided to look for a little more info about you, Kent Nerburn, and I come upon this little essay, which holds the truth of this public moment, simply, clearly, eloquently offered.

    Thank you.

  6. K H says:

    Ken, the bottom line is that in the United States it is not the government’s job to take care of you. And if you think the government should provide you with food and clothes and a house, too? You need food, clothes and a house more than you need health insurance.

    And to act like there isn’t rationing and there aren’t long lines in countries that have government run health care is being intellectually dishonest. Why do you think the hospitals at the Canadian border see so many Canadians? If it is so good in Canada, with government run health care, why do they come here at all? The truth is that it is NOT that good.

    It sounds like to me you are just one of those people who want a hand-out from the government and want the government to be your nanny because that is the crux of your whole argument, that you just want the government to provide for your health care – to sum it up, take care of you. I bet you have not read any of the bills that are being proposed and are just blindly following whatever Obama says even though he hasn’t produced a bill. Read the bill so that you know what you are talking about. And I bet all you watch is CNN, ABC, CBS, MSNBC and all you read is Newsweek, Time, and the Associated Press and believe they are telling you the truth when in fact they are just reporting what the Democrats are saying. If you haven’t figured that out, I wonder about your intelligence. Obama answered a woman in a townhall saying that he didn’t think the government shouldn’t give her elderly mother a pacemaker but instead, just send her off to die with a handfull of pain medication. You approve of that? Obama and the Democrats want to fine you if you choose not to get their approved health insurance and send you to prison if you don’t pay. The bills before congress authorizes the government to deny care. And it makes private insurance illegal, contrary to the Obama lies. If you change your private company policy for any reason, they have to cancel your policy and you have to take the government policy. YOU WILL HAVE NO CHOICE. It will be ILLEGAL to have a private policy. You will have to take the government policy whether you LIKE IT OR NOT. That is in the legislation the Democrats want to pass. They want to put private insurance companies out of business so that you will have no choice where now, if you don’t like your policy or your premium, you can change companies. Not anymore after what you and the Democrats want to pass. WAKE UP and start thinking and stop blindly following whatever Obama says, Obama who has broken every campaign promise he made during the campaign and who promised that unemployment would not go above 8%. Nothing he has said has turned out to be true. WAKE UP!

  7. K H says:

    “They are, with few exceptions, dancing on life’s tightwire without a net — they do not have and cannot afford health insurance. It’s not that they don’t want it. They can’t afford it. The simple cost of living — food, rent, college or college loans, daycare, cars and car insurance — are just too much. They scrape, they dream, and they survive.”

    Maybe if the government would stop stealing people’s money for a bureaucrat spend on a pet pork project or give to someone else, they would have more money to spend on themselves and their needs. And if the government didn’t steal a third of the money companies earn for more government-serving/self-serving programs programs, and end the companies have more money to grow. Barney Frank believes companies exist only to provide him money to steal and give to someone else.

    Kent, you have a fundamentally flawed view on how this government was designed by the founders of the country. This country’s government was designed by the founders to be different than all the other countries in that the government only takes care of basic things like defense and light interstate regulation, just enough to keep it organized, and to basically allow total freedom for the people to carry on their lives as they saw fit, as the Constitution states it:

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”

    “General welfare”, not take care of every little problem in your life. There is nothing in there that says the government must provide health insurance, or even Medicare.

    But, Kent, the argument criticizing Medicare falls because you can’t admit that Medicare is failing because it can’t be afforded and also, that the legislation you approve of, that the Democrats want to pass will reduce Medicare benefits, NOT MAKE THEM BETTER. You claim you care so much, but then you want old people to suffer by having their Medicare benefits cut and approve of withholding care to the elderly, as Obama said is appropriate at the townhall meeting.

  8. K H says:

    People are scraping by because of too much government involvement, and not enough which is what this health care bill is about more government, more ways for the government to steal from people who work for a living, regardless what they do or how much they make. They all work for their money and they don’t do it to have the government raiders swoop down from the plains to ravage their finances. The government is stealing 25% to 40% of most people’s pay. That is around 50 to 100 dollars a month the government is stealing from people. What do you think the people that you lay awake thinking about could do with an extra 30 to 70 dollars a month.

    And if this thing passes, are you going to lay awake at night worrying about the elderly who need hip or knee or some other surgery, or lacks the energy to go and do because they neeed a pacemaker but won’t be able to get it because a government bean counter considers them to be not worth the cost and would rather spend money on a younger person, leaving the elderly to languish in suffering? The young people you lay awake worrying about are not suffering and their medical needs are not as pressing as the elderly’s medical requirements who you apparently don’t care about. The elderly, which may be you in the not too distant future based on your picture, are the ones who will suffer if your wish for government run health care passes. Obama has said so when he said he believed that a woman’s mother should be given pain medication and should be denied a pacemaker. It’s obvious Obama and the Democrats, and Ezekiel Emanuel, Obama’s top health care adviser, approve of withholding care to the elderly.

  9. Wesley Bryan says:

    Kent,

    It was indeed a pleasure to meet you. What great books you continue to write. When I read the introduction and forward to Neither Wolf nor Dog I have either experienced, felt and/or seen the things that you have stressed in these heart-felt words that are so well spoken with compassion and truth for our fellow man, the American Indian. You express our feelings so vividly and acurately as we go about doing our small, but sincere, part of moving forward from a bloody and tear-stained past toward a more humane future. Thank you for the dedication that you have made and all the support that you give to the Native people in so many places in so many ways. Your words and works will help inspire us to coninue this journey.

    Sincerely,
    Wes and Pat Bryan

  10. Jeff Johnson says:

    Just stumbled onto this while researching an anonymous circulation of the cab driver story on Facebook.
    https://m.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151066733074751&id=5951064750&set=a.382429389750.162742.5951064750

    I agree with the sentiments, with the hope for a better America, a more compassionate America that treats health care for each citizen as seriously as it treats military defense in our budget priorities.

    But the thinking here suffers a bit from the so-called Green Lantern theory of the presidency. The truth is, the President is not all powerful. He needs the votes of a Congress to do anything about health care. This is the source of our heartbreak. We can’t expect the President to be a super hero.

    We need to either win resounding durable Democratic majorities in House and Senate, and/or find effective ways to counter the deeply dishonest right wing propaganda machines that poison the minds of their earnest but unwitting victims, such as the badly confused KH above.

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