Tag Archives: Progressives

Hate That Obama’s Near the Middle? Think Again

(Photo:  Obama speaking in Europe, where his views are well received and highly regarded)

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on April 13, 2010, at care2.com

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Contrary to all the talk of disenchantment with the state of the nation, there is reason to be optimistic that President Obama is leading the government in exactly the right direction.  While his critics voice disappointment and outrage, calling on Mr. Obama to govern to the left and to the right, President Obama governs by judgment, not ideology.  This will always disappoint ideologues who see the world through conservative or liberal glasses, but do critics have credible political ideas behind them?

At the outset, a few things need to be set straight.  First, the biggest thing President Obama has done since taking office is not health care reform.  (Complete Story)

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To Protest or Reform — Who’s Messing with Our Minds?

(photo:  Greece’s P.M. Papandreou and France’s Sarkozy in Davos, Switzerland, recently, managing economic turbulence)
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By Marc Seltzer; originally published on March 19, 2010, at care2.com

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There is still a strong undercurrent of anger in the United States about bailouts and stimulus spending.  Republicans, and even Democrats and Progressives, have reacted angrily to President Obama and his financial team.  This is significant because President Obama lost political capital on the economic recovery plan, and has far less power now to push though health care, education and financial reforms than he would have absent these actions.

The common critique from the Right is that Mr. Obama is moving in a socialist direction, while from the Left it is that Geithner, Summers, Romer and Bernanke, the U.S. government’s economic chieftains, are corporatist and beholden to the bankers.

More puzzling than the conservative complaints about the administration’s stewardship of the economy, is the Left’s opposition to it.  A significant part of the Democratic party seems to believe that our current leadership is on the side of the wealthy in a new class struggle, and that the government bailouts have effected a transfer of wealth from the little guy to the fat cats.  To be fair, this antagonism towards saving the financial system is in part a more structural distaste for corporate political and legal power — unrelated to recent U.S. government actions.  None-the-less, Obama is now trying to enact reforms in this across-the-spectrum, anti-government political climate.

To challenge the idea that Obama’s actions were pro-bank, pro-corporate, or designed to bail out the fat cats at the expense of the public, I want to compare the European response to the financial crisis with U.S. actions.  European nations, often called “social democracies,” are respected by the American Left and cited as examples for their stronger safety net of worker protections, health care and liberal benefits.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank, equivalent to our Federal Reserve Bank (Ben Bernanke), said recently about American and European government interventions:

“We had to put on the table on both sides of the Atlantic around 25% of taxpayer risk to avoid the Depression, a major Depression, which would have come had we not been that bold.  When I say we, I mean the governments.  Of course, the central banks also have been very bold, in engaging in non conventional measures — the Fed and us [European Central Bank].”  (Bloomberg on Demand, March 12, 2010, from interview with Tom Keene)

What is insightful here is that European governments and related institutions behaved much as the American government did.  As the New York Times reported in early 2009:

“So far, Europe’s largest economies, France, Germany and Britain, have been spared demonstrations. All three governments have introduced huge stimulus measures aimed at spurring employment and protecting banks.

Regardless of the outcome, the three countries will face large budget deficits and higher state borrowing, which economists say will be passed on to taxpayers. And in the case of France and Germany, the governments could find it more difficult to introduce bold reforms at a time of recession.” (New York Times, January 26, 2009.)

To be sure, European nations have faced public protests over the past year, including demonstrations in recent weeks against the Socialist government in Greece.  And modern European nations are a mix of strong state intervention in industry and free markets.  But despite their more left-leaning perspectives, European government actions to save banks and support their nations’ economies with emergency stimulus spending, resemble US approaches.

The underlying reason for this is plain: Healthy economies require healthy banking systems.  The only other option for lawmakers in 2009 would have been to nationalize, through government takeover, the major banks and investment companies.  This would not only have been too radical for a young American President in the first days of his Presidency, but was not favored by European nations, which, despite more Socialist political visions, prefer to keep most individual businesses in the hands of private owners.

It is as much of a stretch to believe that Barack Obama, community-organizer-turned-politician, attained the Presidency in order to embrace the rich and powerful over the little guy, as it is to draw the conclusion that the Socialist and left-leaning governments of Europe transformed in 2009 into standard bearers for corporate and special interests across the Continent.

Why the American Left should find itself so opposed to the positions of both European and American governments requires little guesswork.  The greed, irresponsibility and power in the financial system made the public angry.  The Republicans, with little post-election political power and prospects, turned anti-corporate anger into anti-government anger with some clever “grass roots” anti-Democrat marketing messages.

Now, instead of joining the administration and embracing reforms, many a Democrat flirts with anti-government energy, which is really just self-serving partisan manipulation pushed by the Republican party.

Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, in discussing his last-minute decision to vote for the President’s health care reform, acknowledged the tension between pressing for progressive reform and falling into a trap laid by the opposition:

“With three years left in the Obama Presidency we have to continue to encourage him, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t play into those who want to destroy his presidency and say, you know, the birthers and others who say he should never have been President to begin with.  There is a tension that exists. . . .  we have to be very careful about how much we attack this president even as we disagree with him because we may play into those who just want to destroy his presidency.”  (Democracy Now!, March 18, 2010 (radio interview with Amy Goodman))

Careful indeed!  It’s about time.

President Obama Achieving the Possible

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 20, 2009, at care2.com

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I, for one, would like to see a re-energized Republican party.  I don’t think its good for America when one party has lost its way and we have to rely, at least temporarily, on the leadership of only one political team.

I rather like medical malpractice reform, a piece of the current Republican puzzle.  If Republicans could coalesce around a message of discipline and sacrifice for the common good on post-recession budgets — and maybe cleaning up the terrible problem in states that elect judges without asking them to recuse themselves when they preside over the cases of their campaign donors, they could have the beginning of a party platform.

Instead, I had to read in the NY Times today that the Republican response to President Obama’s efforts to reach reasonable and practical agreements to reduce international pollution and to the President’s leadership on health care — again seeking compromise in order to achieve what is possible — is that the President should only be working on the economy.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the Republicans have opposed serious efforts at health care reform — including opposing the current reform package that takes significant steps at cost control, while providing health care to those priced out of the system.  (The New York Times reported “the $871 billion cost of the bill would be more than offset by the new revenues and cuts in spending, so that it would reduce future federal budget deficits by $132 billion between 2010 and 2019” per the CBO.)

As if denying that environmental pollution could have a global impact, and claiming that serious scientists doing their best to understand and report climate change were balanced by a far smaller number of skeptics, many of whom represent polluting interests, wasn’t holding America back.

Now the Republican message is that the President of the United States should not do more than one thing at a time.  No matter that the nation is at war, that China presents capitalist competition at a whole new level, that environmental damage is not bound by borders and China, India, Brazil and the like are industrializing fast, that regulation of our private financial system needs obvious overhall and that the great gains in productivity and commerce of recent years got absorbed into rising health care costs rather than making our products more competitive on the international market or our workers better paid and businesses more profitable.  The Republicans want the President to address no more than the economy.  And on the economy, they want unregulated markets, without government action.  In other words, laissez faire, and let the chips fall where they may.

This President is tackling real problems in the economy, health care, and national security, and laying the groundwork for longer-term progress on environmental protection, education, and financial regulation.  His administration is developing new partnerships in international cooperation in keeping with changes in the dynamic power and nature of world nations.

Take for example, the health care compromise aiming to garner 60 votes in the Senate.  It will be picked on mercilessly by those who wanted something more or something less.  Some will say it does nothing and others will say it remakes the American economy into a socialist order.  But read the basics of what it achieves and think.  It offers an estimated 30 million people, who were rejected from or priced out of health insurance, the opportunity to obtain coverage.  It subsidizes low income wage earners and it taxes enough of those parts of the health care industry that are subsidized and overused to achieve significant cost-cutting.  It has features which draw the praise of economists like Paul Krugman. See his recent NY Times op-ed “Pass the Bill.”

The fact that Mr. Obama speaks well and that he uses expressions, such as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” which turn out to perfectly capture the political dynamic, is a mighty bonus.  The President has clear insight into what realistic progress looks like.  Those who criticize compromise do not, although they may have a point that in the future progress can go beyond what we agree to today.  But we have to start from where we are, and sometimes getting started is the hardest part.  Once we move in the direction of cleaner energy, we can invest our education, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and regulatory know-how to take us farther than we can now imagine.  Or more dire circumstances may force us to take other measures.  But this is still the beginning.  We are not lacking leadership at the top.  Let’s take advantage of where we are and get started.

To hear my conversation with care2.com blogger Jessica Pieklo on Copenhagen hopes and Health Care votes follow this link and click on the “December 15, 2009 podcast, Copenhagen’s Promise and Health Care Reform Politics.”

The Vice President’s Op-ed is also worth reading:  Joe Biden in the NY Times.

December 21, 2009 UPDATE: NY Times Editorial in favor of the Senate bill.

Sacrificing the Public Option, Expanding Medicare and Universal Coverage

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 13, 2009, at care2.com
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How does the latest health-care proposal in the U.S. Senate measure up on Progressive principles?

The Progressive movement has rallied behind single payer and public option reform proposals in the belief that not only is universal coverage a fundamental right, but not-for-profit medicine is a better way to get quality health care at a reasonable price.

Unlike most developed nations, the United States has a sizeable part of its population that goes without health insurance.  President Obama took up the cause of greatly expanding coverage in his presidential campaign. He also spoken firmly of reform in terms of bending the cost-curve, making insurance and medical care more affordable to individuals and to the nation, in light of fast-rising health-industry costs.  However, Mr. Obama stopped short of embracing single payer, leaving in question what type of structural changes would be used to achieve reform goals.

The political reality is that both the House of Representatives and Senate are split among those who want to change the system towards government-run health insurance and those intent on maintaining a mostly private system.  In the House of Representatives, the Democratic majority was able to pass legislation substantially expanding coverage and including a limited public option, a small government-run insurance program for those not insured through their employer.  The vote was fairly close and may have reflected inclusion of a controversial abortion-funding restriction, such that the exact count of Representatives who would support a public option if the anti-abortion funding provision were not part of the final bill is uncertain.

In the Senate, Democrats need sixty votes to close debate and move forward.  They have close to, but not quite, that many, who will accept some form of a public option.  Thus, negotiations have continued to explore what types of limited government insurance programs would be acceptable to at least a few conservative Democrats, independents or moderate Republicans.

This week a Senate group reached a compromise that attempts to replace the public option with a public/private non-profit insurance program like that which is currently offered to Congressional legislators and federal employees.  The compromise proposal did not stop there, however.   It also included a provision to significantly expand Medicare, by lowering the age of participation from 65 to 55.

How should Progressives look on this proposal?

All the proposals under consideration push towards universal coverage.  It is really the structure that makes them different.  The use of a public/private program is not equivalent to the public option, or government-run program.  However, the federal authority sets rates, controls profits, and guides provision of health care.  It is a strong control on profit-driven insurance.

Moreover, expanding Medicare is a major step in the direction of single payer.  The Medicare program is single payer for its participants.  Private insurance does not participate except in supplemental programs.  There are approximately 35 million additional Americans who would be eligible to participate, if the age requirement was lowered — more than 10% of the population.  Those under fifty-five would remain in their current employer-provided plans and a small number would participate in the new public/private plan.

Given that there is not political power to create a nationwide single-payer program, the expansion of Medicare to include 35 million additional participants and the coverage of uninsured by a public/private program is much more than could have been achieved by the limited public option as it was contemplated.  The small public option is replaced by a public/private plan, which covers those currently uninsured.  The vast expansion of Medicare offers many more Americans a single payer model of insurance.  Whether this shifts the political equation in the Senate or House is the big question, and this should become known in coming days.

Care2.com/causes blogger Jessica Pieklo and I discussed the new proposal as soon as we got word.  You can hear our conversation by following this link and clicking the December 11, 2009, podcast, and more information should become available as soon as the Congressional Budget Office provides “scoring” or budget estimates.

December 14, 2009, UPDATE: First responses — Senator Lieberman