The New York Times this morning, following up on the breaking news that President Obama will be addressing a joint session of Congress, says that the point of the address is to scale back the "executive expectations" of any bill that might someday emerge from the hallowed halls of Congress. In other words, Obama is going to concede points to the Republicans and Blue Dogs that he has been unable to win in the cacophony of phoney, mendacious, libelous, racist, paranoia we have experienced all summer. The question is not why the "cacaphoney."
We know why Republicans are against reform: they are beholding to insurance and medical corporation interests. We know why Blue Dogs are hesitant: they are afraid of a backlash in their home districts and states from undereducated, knee-jerk conservatives who had to abandon Cheney-Bush out of self-respect, who may have bones to pick with local welfare excesses, or who fancy America to optimally be a loose confederation of local jurisdictions. What we do not know is why Obama and Co. were so ineffectual on these matters. They know perfectly well what the issues are, but they have not addressed them.
The conventional "big picture" of non-political people is that Americans are up to their eyebrows with badly run government programs. This picture utterly ignores the overwhelming approval of Medicare and Medicaid program run directly and indirectly by the federal government. In any argument about health care for those who are not yet old enough to benefit from Medicare the halls quickly fill with horrible stories about illegal aliens and slovenly welfare sponges partaking of free medical care. In one sense these stories are apocryphal mythologies designed to foster class antagonisms and yet in another way they are real and horrible. My significant other works in a hospital down in Tucson where both illegals and sponges are not in short supply. The point that is being lost in the discussion is that immigration and welfare law--not health care law--are the culprits.
The fact is that market economics is a morally and pragmatically limited system for allocation of resources, and it always discriminates invidiously between the rich and the not-so-rich! This can be explained on a fifth-grade level in five minutes of carefully planned and well-spoken American English. Barack Obama has failed utterly to take the helm and to explain --to teach-- Americans that most of what they have heard about economics in the past generation is utter bunk. This is what leadership demands, but it has not taken place ... and we think we know why now. Obama's judgment is that the political center is his target, not the goals and aspirations of those people who nominated and supported him during the election campaign. He said it, and the overwhelming majority believed it: We want change! Change requires extraordinary leadership, not sitting petulantly on your hands or visiting grocery stores in Falls Church to dazzle fifty or so hapless shoppers.
It is a neat question whether Obama should speak next week before a Joint Session or whether instead he should speak from the Oval Office. In a sense the health care reform question is in the lap of the Congress and so he should address his leadership to them. But, in another sense it is time that Obama understand that the essential moment for that has passed, that truculent Republicans have so muddied and polluted the waters of public discourse that addressing Congress and leaving the nation to understand the moment second hand, as it were, is to admit defeat. He should take up the fire-side chat and teach.