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.

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Obama’s two unnoticed gifts

There are two little noticed aspects of Obama and his family that I think bode very well for America.

The first is Michelle. She has, from the outset, been adamant that family came first. She demanded it of Barack, and I think it was a sine qua non of her willingness to embark upon this shared political journey. I believe she will carry this commitment into the White House.

What this means is that we will have, for the first time in memory, a First Mother who has taken that role by choice. None can doubt her talents in other areas, and she will surely choose a social cause to champion, as all First Ladies do. But I truly believe that, shining through her involvement in whatever cause she may choose, will be her commitment to raising a healthy, well-grounded and well-rounded family without hiding them from public view.

You can already see it in the girls — they are not little smiling automatons or perfectly drilled political children. They are just kids, looking with wonder at the circumstances in which they find themselves, and sharing that wonder with us all. This is a reflection of strong and steady parenting: the children can be trusted to be themselves in a public setting without fear that the selves they show will be either ill-mannered or inappropriate. Like Barack, like Michelle, they are comfortable in their own skins. My guess is that the Obamas as a family will work their way into our cultural consciousness as an honest antidote to the juvenile abusiveness of laugh track TV families, and offer a model of civil behavior to us all.

At the heart of this, as it should be, will be the strong and powerful presence of Michelle. She will be almost a post-feminist figure, not balancing motherhood and a profession, but intertwining them in a way that shows the two of them to be complementary parts of a fully realized human being. If she can do this, she will advance the cause of feminism in a way that will be equally as significant as Barack’s contributions to advancing the cause of post-racial identity.

The second contribution is potentially equally as far reaching. With the arrival of Barack, we have the return of “cool” as a viable expression of personal identity. Between gangster aggression, television talk show screaming, and glowering athletes, we have become a culture that values “hot” in the McLuhanesque sense of the term. Especially in the African American youth culture, which serves as the vanguard for popular cultural forms and identities for almost all of American youth, the idea of a “cool” identity has fallen out of favor. In its place we have lionized a “hot” aggressiveness.

Barack appears to have the capability of changing this. All through the campaign, when attacked, he either embraced and then neutralized the attack, or calmly staked out his considered position and held to it without either aggression or rancor. He respected his opponents, laughed at his own shortcomings, and made civility a virtue. In short, he modeled a measured and worthy manhood.

If, through some bit of cosmic grace, we should have found at this moment in time a woman who can model a resolved and caring motherhood as well as professional excellence, and a man who can show that strength is in embracing rather than in posturing and confronting, we will be standing in a rare shaft of historical sunlight.

At least until shown otherwise, I choose to believe this is true. It will show an America that has come of age, not merely racially, but psychologically. The young country that has so attracted and confounded the rest of the world in its agitated struggling for an identity to match its sheer physical power, will finally be able to lead by example rather than by force.

I once wrote in Letters to My Son, “Strength based in force is a strength people fear; strength based in love is a strength people crave.” The Obamas raise the very real possibility that we will manifest a strength based in love. If this is the case, their presidency will reverberate far beyond the confines of political action and discourse. They will, in effect, redefine what it means to be an American. It is, to my mind, a redefinition that is long overdue.

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