[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
I am very concerned about the future of this country.
No, not just because health care reform is being so watered down in Congress that it now completely fails to address the underlying dire (and spiraling) problems of the health care system. (As I've written previously, there is no defensible position to opposing a public option.) Rather, it's watching how the health care debate has unfolded (and other attempts at legislation this year, too), and how Congress has handled the relevant legislation. And also how the American people have reacted.
At the risk of oversimplifying something that is far more complicated, in their most basic form, I see two trends that are disturbing:
1) Congress (not just the Republicans, either) have not supported President Obama's attempts at delivering the change on which he campaigned (and the change for which Americans overwhelmingly voted).
2) The American people have not been savvy about the dynamic in Washington, mainly because, it seems to me, they are in total denial as to the severity of the problems facing the country.
As I removed my New York Times from its three (!?!?!?) protective bags yesterday morning and glanced over the front page, I noticed that four of the six articles directly or indirectly revealed how neither Congress nor the American people are really confronting the problems facing the country. On health care, there is a piece that details how the millions of dollars in campaign donations raised for Democrats by a Texas hospital are affecting how Democrats in Congress are approaching health care. With insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies having poured $81 million and $134 million, respectively, into Congressional coffers, it's not surprising that more senators and members of Congress seemed to be concerned with the profit margins of these companies than with the health and wallets of the American people. I expect Republicans to out-and-out lie to protect their health insurance company benefactors (like Sen. Tom Coburn saying that people will die if health care reform is passed). But when you have a Blue Dog Democrat like Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas proudly saying Wednesday, "We have successfully pushed a floor vote to September," you really start to wonder if there is any pretense left as to who those who oppose the president's health care reform are working for. What is he so proud of? Delaying relief to the American people?
Another article addresses how despite the Obama administration's aggressive plan to cut down on home foreclosures, mortgage servicers are subverting the process, because they make so much in fees from foreclosing on delinquent homeowners. This was just another reminder that the banks, despite nearly bringing down the economy last year, still rule on Capitol Hill, which is directly related to the massive amount of money the industry funnels to campaigns. (For example, according to OpenSecrets.org, in the 2010 cycle, the finance/insurance/real estate industry has contributed more than $14 million to 422 members of the House and more than $6 million to 89 senators, and one subset of that group, the securities and investment sector, has given more than $2.8 million to 300 members of the House and more than $1.9 million to 58 senators. )
On the bottom of the front page, there is an item about how the popularity of installing white roofs is increasing in an effort to cut energy costs, which only reminded me of how little this year's energy bill does to actually address the country's dependence on foreign oil (impacting national security, the economy, and the environment, including the threat of global warming).
The articles were a reminder of what I've been thinking since it became clear that Congress had no intention of passing anything resembling Obama's ambitious health care reform plan that addressed the underlying systematic problems, rather than just handing out more money to the industries that are responsible for the current broken model: While voters enthusiastically embraced Obama's calls for change, too many senators and U.S. representatives have no interest in signing on to a new agenda. In fact, beginning with the stimulus bill and moving through energy, financial regulation and now health care, Congress has gutted Obama's proposals. Instead of embracing necessary systematic change, Republicans have concentrated on opposing anything Obama proposed to win political points, moderate and conservative Democrats have looked to ensure that Obama's proposals were defanged, and even the mainstream wing of the Democratic party seems more intent on winning old battles than furthering the president's ambitious proposals, the very ones that carried him (and, to some extent, Democrats in Congress) to power last November.
To me, the battle has shaped up as a forward-looking president (the "Yes We Can!" of my title) trying to deliver the change he promised against an inward-looking Congress more interested in self-preservation (which has different meanings to mainstream Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans, but all adds up to the "No We Won't!").
You would think that this breakdown would be clear to Americans observing the process unfold. As is often the case when trying to figure out the U.S. electorate, you would be wrong.
The fourth article that caught my attention on the front page of the Times was about poll results that show not only that the country is growing uneasy about Obama's health care reform plan (even though Obama is still more trusted on the issue than Republicans are), but that, according to the piece, "Americans are concerned that revamping the health care system would reduce the quality of their care, increase their out-of-pocket health costs and tax bills, and limit their options in choosing doctors and, treatments and tests."
Clearly, the Republican misinformation campaign, equating a public option with a single-payer Canadian system (and we all know we can't do anything the Canadians would do ...), has found traction, which is depressing, considering the judgments are being made based on lies. It's Harry and Louise all over again. (I re-read the transcript of Obama's July 22 press conference today, and I think anyone who thinks that the president's plan will hurt them should really give the speech transcript a look.)
And there was something even more disturbing in the article. According to the Times, "The percentage who describe health care costs as a serious threat to the American economy ... has dropped over the past month." Wow. Fantastic. Denial has set in. (As I pointed out last week, the nonpartisan/bipartisan National Coalition on Health Care has detailed the exponentially growing health care burden on the country, and how despite the high cost, we still receive comparatively lousy care.)
How can we address our serious problems if, as a nation, we aren't prepared to admit they exist? I feel like the country is an ocean liner heading for an iceberg, but the captain can't convince the crew to change course because doing so would affect the suntanning opportunities of the passengers (who would then vote the crew out of jobs).
To me, it looks like Obama is trying to honestly take on the mammoth problem of health care, advocating for reform that would reduce costs, increase coverage, improve quality, and protect people from the whims of the insurance companies, but he is being opposed by Congress, even though his party has 60 seats in the Senate and a huge majority in the House (thanks to the Blue Dogs who are siding with the Republicans and mainstream Democrats who lack the constitution and compass to stand firm for systematic change). And, what's worse, Obama is taking the blame.
Yesterday, in a response to a Facebook friend's status bashing Obama, someone commented that he was sick of the president making "empty promises" and that he should start fixing the problems facing the country. I felt like I was reading a Facebook page through the looking glass. An "empty promise" is one where the person making the promise has no intention of carrying it out. You can make that charge about Democrats in Congress, but I don't see how you can put such an accusation at the feet of the president.
I can argue the facts all I want, but in this guy's mind (and based on the Times poll, he's not alone), it's all Obama's fault, even though, despite George W. Bush's belief to the contrary, a president is not a dictator who can act alone. To pass legislation, Congress has to do its part. And right now, a majority of members of Congress are not helping Obama face our very real problems.
I'm not sure I have an answer to all of this. Sometimes it feels like our current corrupt system of status quo government is unbreakable. But I do know that if the Democrats in Congress don't find a way to become co-advocates with the president on these important issues, their future political problems (and there will be losses if things don't turn around, especially considering that the president's party traditionally loses Congressional seats in mid-term elections) will be the least of it. The real result will be that we will fail, as a society, to make the truly make-or-break decisions that need to be made to address serious problems that threaten our stability and prosperity. Health care is one of these challenges, and it's as good a time as any to turn the tide.
And if Americans don't acknowledge the depth of the health care problem and the role Congress is playing in choosing the interests of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies over their constituents (as well as the other challenges facing the country), the problem won't be addressed, and the results could be catastrophic.
Actually, Americans have an even bigger job right now. They have to stand up and take responsibility for their country. Even though health care will benefit nearly everybody, we still have to look past self-interest to address the looming threats that escalating health care costs pose to our personal bottom lines, and the economy of the country. The time for placing our heads ostrich-like in the ground and thinking only for today has to end. As the president said in his speech, when you look at the current health care system as a proposal, it's one no sane person (outside of an insurance or pharmaceutical company) would support.
Am I optimistic? Not really. But it's important for everyone to speak out now, before it's too late.