As I listened to Obama's speech on health care last night, I kept experiencing a disconnect between the reasonable, intelligent, consensus builder who was giving the speech and the irrational, uninformed ideologues who attack him every chance they get. This was not the speech of a fiery liberal hell bent on socializing the health care system, nor was it the wishy-washy spinelessness characteristic of so many of his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate. Instead it was a firm centrist declaration of a man determined to get things done, not offering compromise, but acknowledging the strength of his adversaries and in fact adopting some of their positions, including a proposal floated by John McCain in the campaign and even raising the possibility of reforming malpractice litigation, long a Republican cause.
The disconnect comes from trying to understand what causes people like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O'Reilly and their ilk to depict this man who is only a few degrees to the left of George Bush as a immoderate leftist-socialist-communist and, in Glenn Beck's head-in-the-sand formulation, racist. And now we can add the name of South Carolina Representative Jim Wilson to the list of GOP loonies. He's the guy who shouted "Liar" during Obama's speech when the President said the health plan would not fund care for illegal immigrants. (God forbid we spend a few dollars to help a sick or dying Mexican farm worker who picks our tomatoes for us.)
What would these people do if we really had a leftist President--someone like Ralph Nader for example--who refused to mince his words about the evils of corporate capitalism? Instead they have a President who chastises both the left (for insisting on single payer health care) and the right (for saying that employers have no responsibility to supply health care for their workers.) He offers insurance companies a bonanza by mandating health insurance for virtually everyone, but tempers his mandate by offering a public option that will give consumers greater choice and undoubtedly lower premiums.
If there was any lingering doubt, this speech certainly made it clear that Obama intends to govern from the center and not from either end of the political spectrum. While this is a frustrating spectacle for many progressives to watch, it is also a cause for some celebration. This is a man who will indeed get things done, albeit not to the degree and scope that many of us had hoped for. He has the gift of understanding what can be done in the context of American politics and the grit and determination to press ahead and do it.
Like many liberals, I continue to hope for an eventual single-payer plan as the only way to really reform health care, but I'm realistic enough to face the fact that the chances of getting a single payer plan through at this time is highly unlikely. The public option idea is not quite as unlikely and Obama has made it clear that that is his preference, without drawing a line in the sand about it. Many of us would have liked to see him draw that line. Meanwhile, you've got to have respect for this man's political instincts, and it may be that a surer road to a public option not to insist on it and to continue to remain open to possibilities. The stark contrast between this approach and the no-no-no approach of his adversaries is bound to win him converts.
Surely those of us to the left of Obama can realize that the reforms included in this program--especially disallowing insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and disallowing them to drop people once they contract an illness--is a step forward. But these things are a step forward only if, as Obama has pointed out many times, if we can "keep the insurance companies honest" by controlling the cost of policies. It's one thing to say they can't deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions, but like auto insurers, who charge inordinate premiums to people who have a record of accidents, health insurers are clearly likely to raise the rates on someone with, say, a history of heart disease. So the public option will offer coverage at reasonable rates and force the premiums downward.
In his speech, Obama said he's not the first President to take on health care reform, but he hopes to be the last. That's a bit ingenuous, for however much these reforms "fix" the system, it's only a matter of time before the whole thing will need to be traded in for a simple, single payer system that takes the profit motive out of health care and puts patients and their well being before corporate profits. Unfortunately, that's still down the road a bit, and it will probably take another President or two to put that shiny new car in our driveways.