Surrendering to the status quo

August 25, 2009

A president who was hyped as the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt is conceding to the right on every question.

REPUBLICANS AND conservative Democrats are set to wreck health care reform--and Barack Obama is letting them get away with it.

Now the question is this: Will liberals in Congress refuse to let Obama off the hook and fight back? Or will health care--like the trillions of dollars in giveaways to the banks, the escalation of the U.S. war on Afghanistan, and the maintenance of George W. Bush's police-state powers--become another Obama White House capitulation to the wealthy and powerful?

Certainly it was expected that the health insurance and drug companies would use their clout to try to block real health care reform. On the campaign trail last year, Obama explicitly promised to keep them in line. "I'll have the insurance and drug companies at the table," he said. "They just won't be able to buy every chair...And I'll be at the table. I'll have the biggest chair, because I'm president." Obama even promised to televise negotiations on C-SPAN.

Yet it was President Obama who empowered Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus to frame health care legislation in a closed-door session with six senators from both parties--and it was Baucus who gave Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa veto power over any deal.

President Barack Obama

Now Obama is poised to junk the so-called "public option"--a government-run insurer that was supposed to compete with private companies. Obama once championed the public option as an essential way to force private insurers and the industry generally to control runaway health care costs--now he calls it a "tiny sliver" of health care reform.

Instead of a program run nationwide by the federal government, the "compromise" position is for multiple health insurance co-ops to fill in the gaps left by private companies. The co-ops would be powerless to negotiate better arrangements with drug and medical companies--they'll end up as a pale imitation of the private system.

Meanwhile, Baucus and Grassley--who are among the top recipients of campaign donations from health insurance companies--have piled on items from the corporate wish list.

Crucially, their proposal would require the uninsured to buy coverage. With the "public option" eliminated or neutralized, this will give private companies a virtually captive market of nearly 50 million people. Government subsidies would pay part of the premiums for low-income people--that is, private insurers would be subsidized with government money.

Moreover, under the Baucus plan, the insurance companies would only have to pay 65 percent of the cost of health care expenses for people enrolled in the mandatory plans. By comparison, today's group plans typically pay between 80 and 90 percent of costs.

For health insurance companies, this proposal is "a bonanza," Robert Laszewski, a former health insurance executive, told the Los Angeles Times. He said the insurance companies' reaction to the plan can be summed up in a single word: "Hallelujah!"

Meanwhile, the White House has apparently agreed to continue to bar the federal government from negotiating discounts from drug companies for government programs--the same multibillion-dollar giveaway that liberals denounced when George W. Bush imposed similar rules on the Medicare prescription drug program.

In return, Big Pharma promised to cut prices by $80 billion over 10 years. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, that's nothing for an industry that makes about $300 billion in sales each year.

And, warns Reich, "when an industry gets secret concessions out of the White House in return for a promise to lend the industry's support to a key piece of legislation, we're in big trouble. That's called extortion: An industry is using its capacity to threaten or prevent legislation as a means of altering that legislation for its own benefit. And it's doing so at the highest reaches of our government, in the office of the president."

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert summed up the situation this way: "If the oldest and sickest are on Medicare, and the poorest are on Medicaid, and the young and the healthy are required to purchase private insurance without the option of a competing government-run plan--well, that's reform the insurance companies can believe in."

THUS, A president who came into office hyped as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt seems to be conceding to the right on every question.

As a result, it can sometimes seem like the right wing has the initiative on the health care issue, thanks to outsized cable news network coverage of organized right-wingers who packed town hall meetings with members of Congress.

In reality, there has been a substantial majority for years in favor of genuine health care reform. If Obama really took on the unpopular insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry, he could have used his political momentum coming into office to rally support not only for a public option in health care, but for a Medicare-for-all single-payer system that would provide the most equitable and effective solution.

Instead, Obama has tended to the needs of big capital--and not only on health care policy. The administration began by expanding George W. Bush's unprecedented multi-trillion-dollar giveaway to the banks. Its $787 billion economic stimulus plan hasn't made much of a dent in rising unemployment--if those involuntarily working short hours or dropped out of the workforce are counted, the jobless rate is around 16.3 percent, rather than the official 9.4 percent. And homeowners have been stiffed by the Obama administration, which has no cure for the foreclosure pandemic.

Now, as Obama prepares to surrender his central campaign promise--health care reform--to Republicans and Corporate America, some liberals have had it.

"I don't know if administration officials realize just how much damage they've done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing," wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, adding, "It's hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can't be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled."

Krugman is correct. But the fact is that Obama is a conventional Democratic Party politician--which means he instinctively puts the interests of big business first. If there's no pressure from below, the corporations will have their way.

Fortunately, some activists are taking the initiative to put forward a progressive alternative. Advocates of a single-payer system upstaged several of Baucus' committee hearings on Capitol Hill to try to force open the corporate-controlled debate.

Physicians for a National Health Program are, along with allies in the single-payer health care movement, organizing meetings around the U.S. to try to shift the terms of the discussion. And five Portland physicians, calling themselves the Mad as Hell Doctors, will travel across the U.S. to Washington, D.C., to push for a single-payer solution.

These actions, though modest, have been important in both countering the myth of a grassroots right-wing rebellion against "government-run health care" and in putting forward a vision of genuine reform--the single-payer solution--that will be needed in the future. Without the activism, the liberal lawmakers who are now speaking out about the shortcomings of the Baucus plan and the White House's strategy might have stayed silent.

Similar action is needed on other issues--from demanding a halt to cuts in social spending or fighting for a new, more effective stimulus plan to create jobs.

Obama has shown where his priorities lie--on health care and many other issues. The task for the left is to organize to fight for our agenda.

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