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Obama’s Enforcer: Not Really Tough Enough

Posted on Aug 20, 2009
White House / Pete Souza

By Joe Conason

If the Democrats fail to pass real changes in the health care system this year—rather than a sham that mimics and mocks reform—they will have nobody to blame but themselves. Or at least nobody to blame but other Democrats, notably those in the White House who have never been committed to this most venerable and fundamental aspect of party policy.

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Of course, the right-wing rumor mongers have done their share of damage, spreading lies about “death panels” and stirring up the boob cohort with warnings about socialism. Republican elected officials have decided to damage the president rather than address an issue they know is critical to the nation’s future. Health insurance lobbyists and corporate leaders have spent millions of dollars to kill reform, buying legislative obedience the same way they buy advertising time or legal advice.

Yet in the months that followed the momentous election of November 2008, the Democrats have possessed the power to fulfill the moral imperative—good, affordable health care for all Americans—that they have pursued since the Harry Truman era. Both the new president and the new majorities in both houses of Congress declared their determination to create the kind of health care system that other developed nations have enjoyed for the past 50 years or so.

Now competing measures that might or might not accomplish that worthy goal are stalemated in Congress while the White House dithers over how best to placate Republicans and conservative Democrats who have opposed serious reform from the beginning.

The ultimate responsibility for this sorry state of affairs belongs with the president, who vacillates between speaking out boldly for a “public option,” and permitting his aides and appointees to undermine his message by confiding their plans to sell out.


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His worst tendency, to exalt bipartisan compromise above progressive policy, has left him at the mercy of senatorial frauds like Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who pretended to negotiate over details while denouncing the president for seeking to terminate America’s grandmothers. Obama assigned far too much responsibility for health care reform to aides who exacerbate that weakness—and in particular to Rahm Emanuel, the current chief of staff and former congressman from Chicago.

Every mistake made by the Obama White House in the pursuit of health care reform can be traced to the political style and ideological prejudices of Emanuel, who has sought to intimidate progressives and empower conservatives, always in the name of winning elections and “getting things done.”

A self-styled tough guy who famously likes to prove his point with abusive language and threats, he led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the years when the party regained its majority—when he spent millions to elect the “Blue Dogs,” who have done so much to thwart the president’s agenda on health, energy and economic recovery.

He repeatedly intervened in primary elections around the country to promote GOP-lite candidates against challengers who actually represented the party’s bedrock beliefs. Around that same time, he co-authored a lightweight volume on national policy, titled “The Plan,” that explained why he believed that universal health coverage could not be passed, so Democrats should settle for covering the nation’s children, which had largely been achieved by then.

All this dubious history was no secret when Obama appointed the combative Chicagoan to run his shop. Although few Democrats trusted Emanuel to hold true to principle, many hoped that he would get things done—and that those things would reflect the progressive outlook of his boss rather than the attitude of accommodation he picked up on Capitol Hill.

Instead and perhaps inevitably, his narrow pragmatism is shaping the Obama administration’s approach to reform. As long as some kind of bill passes, Emanuel won’t worry when the corporate powers override the public interest once again. He will congratulate himself on a job well done. His Blue Dogs will boast of frustrating that liberal Obama. Everyone will get a nice check from the insurance lobbyists.

But the president’s promise will be soiled, and the nation’s future will be dimmed.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2009

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By thebeerdoctor, August 20, 2009 at 3:54 am Link to this comment

I find this article to be quite bizarre. Joe Conason writes that Emanuel “repeatedly intervened in primary elections around the country to promote GOP-lite candidates against challengers who actually represented the party’s bedrock beliefs.”
And what Fred Flintstone asks, are those bedrock beliefs? The Clinton years? with the Communications Act of 1996, the embargo against Iraq that led to the deaths of half a million children? Or perhaps it was that Commodity Modernization bill that signed away any Glass-Steagall restraints?
Then Conason playing the good cop-bad cop cafard, speaks of Emanuel, that many hoped he would get things done, and that those things would reflect the progressive outlook of his boss.
What progressive outlook? It certainly is not in the red meat speeches that Obama says at the AIPAC conventions, or the ridiculous justification for extending the Afghan-Pak war he gave to VFW this week. Nor for that economic recovery team he speaks so highly of.
Perhaps Conason is feeling buyer’s remorse. But blaming the dual-citizen Emanuel for Barry’s boo-boos just does not cut it.

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By bogi666, August 20, 2009 at 3:28 am Link to this comment

The REpubican Party solution to health care is simple. IT’S EAT SHIT AND DIE AMERICANS NO HEALTH CARE IS BETTER THAN ANY/ALL PUBLIC OPTIONS. It was Howard Dean who engineered the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, not Rahm although he took the credit for it. Not surprising.There is no health care industry in the USA, there is a health insurance industry with health care professionals. President O’Bushama need to be taught a lesson by voting Democrats out of office. The Republican Party’s goal for America, since 1978, is an Indonesian type government fashioned after the military dictatorship of Suharto. This is the Repubicans unofficial policy which is what determines actual policy. Official policy is for propaganda and public relations only. It is the “Family”, a book, of Republicans who admire Suharto along with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao,although they overlook Ho Chi Mihn’s success. The “Family” derives their philosophy from the New Testament which they claim is all about power. The notable’s are Gov. Sanford and Senator Ensign who are still in office despite scandals. The “Family” members have made their god in there Image, thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility for misconduct, which is why the notables don’t resign.

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By ardee, August 20, 2009 at 3:00 am Link to this comment

The buck stops here.

Blaming an appointee, whose beliefs, policy directions and style were all well known prior to his appointment is foolish,Mr. Conason. The blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of the ‘appointer’.

After campaigning as a progressive, Obama made one abysmal nomination after the other, filling his cabinet with those who contributed to the economic debacle, Summers and Geithner, one who fully supported the Bush war on terror and , when in the CIA, was a mainstay of the move to politicize intel rather than judge it on its merit, Bob Gates.

Though President Obama spoke to the importance of health care reform he removed himself from any leadership role in the process, allowing the GOP and the right wing of the Democratic Party to sabotage the effort from the beginning. This lack of leadership hurt because the opponents of reform spread the most ridiculous of lies about an effort still in its formative process, lies that could have easily been exposed before they became established.

This nation seems rudderless. We have no leaders. Thus, as it always is really, it is up to the American public to step into the vacuum and lead. Will we?

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, August 20, 2009 at 2:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Someone said recently that Emanuel is afraid that if
the democrats go for a real public option then
republicans will get all the campaign money that the
insurance companies have been spreading around to
both parties.  As usual in Washington every issue, in
the end, is about the money.  Before we can have
decent government which is responsive to the people
we have to have real campaign finance reform.  I
think public financing of all campaigns is the only
way.  This might mean that we have also to get rid of
the supreme court ruling that corporations are people
with all the rights thereof so that campaign
donations are not considered a matter of free speech.

off topic:
Yesterday CNN showed a video segment of Barney Frank
answering a stupid question at a health care town
meeting.  Finally a democrat realized what is the
only way to deal with these people.

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