THE BLOG

The Public Necessity

03/18/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

The health care debate -- with its leaks, mixed signals and close-to-the-vest dealing -- has reform supporters losing their cool while Obama, infuriatingly, maintains his. The uncertainty has strained the tenuous loyalties of a fickle American left. How much talk about "triggers" is real, how much is process, and how much is rope-a-dope?

David Dayen defines the problem for Firedoglake:

Is the White House "insisting" on triggers to take the heat off of Harry Reid, who is having trouble finding the last votes for cloture? Are they drawing fire away from Senate moderates? Are they doing it to keep Snowe thinking the White House is on her side? Do they want to pull a switcheroo in conference committee? Do they actually think that the public option will need some time to get right, so a trigger might help to aid that delay? Are these the words of one rogue faction in the White House that can't stand the public option and the "left of the left"?

Reports about Thursday night's White House meeting between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama suggest that Obama is not prepared to twist the arms of remaining Senate holdouts to secure a bill with a public option (sans "triggers"), even though that goal now seems within reach:

"Everybody knows we're close enough that these guys could be rolled. They just don't want to do it because it makes the politics harder," said a senior Democratic source, saying that Obama is worried about the political fate of Blue Dogs and conservative Senate Democrats if the bill isn't seen as bipartisan. "These last couple folks, they could get them if Obama leaned on them."

Meanwhile, Obama's political arm, "Organizing for America" (OFA), found its legs on October 20th, generating 315,000 phone calls to Capitol Hill in support of health care reform. While the approved script called for supporting the "the President's plan for health reform" -- whatever that is -- many OFA volunteers support a "robust public option." OFA's back channel exhortations for supporters to increase the pressure and "win this thing" tell a very different story from the media narrative about a reluctant, unengaged president.

After eight years of Bush-Cheney, the left was primed for the change Obama promised -- and thoroughly distrustful of Washington politics, including his. The mixed signals have Obama's base clinging to the hope that their leader is playing rope-a-dope with opponents, while other progressives are already declaring Obama a conservative.

If it makes them dig in and fight harder, fine.

But Thomas P.M. Barnett's warning to the Pentagon is one to which progressives should pay heed: "we field a first-half team in a league that keeps score until the end of the game." Progressives have to maintain focus and momentum if they hope to punch through the insurance industry's goal-line defense. "Allies" in Congress won't manage that on their own. One year after November 2008, will voters again rise to the occasion or remain on the sidelines with an 'Obama hangover'?"

A society accustomed to sitting on the couch and being passively entertained is one more accustomed to being governed rather than to governing. Once the vote-counting is over, many citizens tune out again until the next election. A colleague echoing the familiar FDR "make me do it" anecdote, noted that few realize just how hard it is for even their favorite leaders to change things themselves without being pushed hard by supporters.

Anna Quindlen argues in Newsweek that the founding fathers engineered our system to resist radical changes of direction, that Obama is a process-oriented centrist more than the populist firebrand progressives thought they were electing, and that health reform therefore may be more incremental than sweeping.

Perhaps. But that very system did not inhibit the Bush administration from taking the country in a radical direction overnight, nor did it stop a population alarmed by those radicals from firing them overnight. Obama didn't do that. We did.

Quindlen concludes by reminding readers that if Americans want change, they had best not sit back and expect someone else to do it for them, because

"... if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn't want to go."

OFA got a taste again of what that's like on October 20th. If the rest of America really believes that the health reform it needs is not just a public option, but a public necessity, more Americans will have to get up off the couch and go get it. Neither Obama nor the Democrats will deliver it to their doorstep like a pizza.

(Cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future.)