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Speak Up for the Health Care Bill, President Obama!

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Throughout the campaign your articulateness and your speaking skills served you well. You preached a message of hope that appealed to many young voters and to most African-Americans, among others. You promised us that you would bring about change that we could believe in. But as soon as you were in office you started bringing about economic changes that some of us found hard to believe in. For a variety of reasons, your job approval ratings have been falling. Recently the Democratic candidates for governor in Virginia and New Jersey lost, despite the fact that you had campaigned for them and you had carried those two states in the election a year ago. Finally, the health care bill appears to be stalled in Congress.

Along the way to your election in 2008, you defended the idea of the federal government lending a helping hand to those among us who need a helping hand. Surely the health care bill in Congress is one of the primary ways that the federal government can lend a helping hand to those among us who need a helping hand with health care coverage. However, you seem to be living up to the characterization of "no drama Obama." But now is the time for you to speak out strongly in favor of the health care bill. So let's have some drama, Obama! If you lose, at least you can say that you went down fighting.

During the campaign, you characterized the Republican party as saying "Good luck" to those among us who need a helping hand. As a far as I know, John McCain did not challenge your characterization. As a result, he allowed you to get away without having to articulate further why the federal government should be involved in lending a helping hand to those among us who need a helping hand. But the time has now come when you need to do this.

Arguably the two most famous advocates in Western culture for government leadership intervention to lend a helping hand to those who need a helping hand were the ancient prophets Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem. Those two prophets did not mince their words in addressing the powers that be in ancient Israel. I would not urge you to try to speak to the American people today as powerfully as those prophets spoke to their contemporaries. After all, they claimed to be speaking for God. But you should not make such a claim. Nevertheless, I would commend their way of thinking to you. Their way of thinking can be summed up by saying that we are all in this covenant arrangement (i.e., governance structure) together. As a result, we sink or swim together. When it comes to health care coverage, we Americans today should not embrace the ethos of the survival of only the financially fittest.

Next, I want to draw your attention to Edward Bellamy's utopian novel "Looking Backward: 2000-1887" (1888). As the subtitle indicates, Bellamy envisions what the United States might look like in the year 2000. Except for envisioning unprecedented material prosperity, he did not come close to envisioning what this country actually looked like in 2000. As a matter of fact, the central lines of what he envisioned were and are impractical. But when it comes to the vision thing, he hit pay dirt not because of practical considerations but because of his critique of present conditions. Many points in the critiques of 19th-century American capitalism and individualism that Bellamy places on the lips of the character named Doctor Leete are still relevant critiques of present-day capitalism and individualism.

In chapter XII, the character named Julian West says to Doctor Leete, "I admit the claim of this class [i.e., the poor] to our pity, but how could they who produced nothing claim a share of the product as a right?"

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Doctor Leete replies, "How happened it that your workers were able to produce more than so many savages would have done? Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready-made to your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not? And were not these others, these unfortunate and crippled brothers whom you cast out, joint inheritors, coheirs with you? What did you do with their share? Did you not rob them when you put them on crusts, who were entitled to sit with the heirs, and did you not add insult to robbery when you called the crusts charity?"

To be sure, Bellamy portrays Doctor Leete as deeply steeped in the religious tradition of thought in which all human beings are considered to somehow embody the image of God. But not all Americans today believe in God or believe that we are somehow children of God. Even so, the line of argument developed in the passage quoted here from Bellamy's novel of ideas strikes me as relevant to the current debate about the health care bill. The kind of extreme individualism advocated by Ayn Rand, for example, still needs to be countered strongly in American society today.

You won the election by preaching a message of change. But now you need to do more to win the passage of the health care bill. You have got to articulate to the American people today why we should support the health care bill. The election was yours to lose, so basically all you needed to do was avoid making big mistakes. You did that. But now you need to do more to deliver the kind of change we need in the health care bill.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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