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Barack Obama, Meet Sisyphus

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Posted on Apr 5, 2010

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Toward the end of the health care battle, a beleaguered Obama staff member sent me an e-mail that ended with the words: “Sisyphus was a sissy compared to what we’ve been through!”

Yes, the fight for health care seemed very much like the Greek myth: Every time the White House found itself on the verge of rolling the health care stone up the hill, some event—say, Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts—would force it to start over with a new strategy.

Alas for President Obama, this will not be the last moment that invites comparisons with Sisyphus. His health care victory marked the beginning of a new phase in the administration’s political struggles, not a final triumph.

It is still, of course, an enormous achievement, and it alters the political terrain in ways that are favorable to Democrats. By creating new facts on the ground, health reform complicates the Republicans’ task.

Already, the GOP’s early calls to repeal the bill look problematic. The insurance reforms in the bill are widely popular, and even its tax increases (a large share of which hit the very wealthy) are tied to benefits that would flow to Americans in the middle- or lower-middle range of incomes.

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In addition, Republicans concede a great deal when they say they would “replace” the plan and not simply return to the pre-reform status quo. Their slogan makes clear that all future arguments about health care will be premised on a more active government role. The debate will never be the same again.

Moreover, the Democrats’ ability to hold together and pass health reform may encourage some Republican senators to seek compromises on other issues rather than stand aside yet again and thereby limit their impact on final outcomes.

But the outlines of the next phase of this year’s election argument are becoming visible.

Sophisticated conservatives have begun to argue that Democratic proposals across a range of issues are designed to make the United States more like Europe. Without shouting the word “socialism,” they claim that programs to guarantee greater economic security (such as the health reform) and to impose more stringent rules on finance and banking would make the American economy less entrepreneurial and less inclined to risk-taking.

Countering these arguments will require progressives to insist that their program is entirely within the American tradition, an effort to restore some of the security and predictability that defined the economy before the erosion of employer-provided benefits that began in the 1980s.

They will also have to make a strong case that the new rules on finance are not aimed at reducing genuine private risk-taking. Their purpose is to end a system that allowed a small number of financiers and firms to make fortunes by taking enormous risks in full knowledge that taxpayers would ultimately be forced to cover their losses. Reform is designed to reduce the exposure of taxpayers and those outside the financial system, not to create a risk-free private economy.

The trickiest political problem confronting the administration and its allies is rooted in rising concern about the deficit. Here, Republicans will be able to engage in their own kind of risk-free politics. As the party out of power, they can condemn deficits, attack “big government” in the abstract, and oppose tax increases—all at the same time, and without facing the consequences of how their policies would work in practice.

And because any plausible policy for dealing with long-term deficits will necessarily involve tax increases of some sort, Obama and the Democrats are looking at an unpalatable election-year choice. Endorsing substantial tax increases now would be politically suicidal, but failing to do so opens Democrats to charges from deficit hawks that they are not serious about the red ink.

In the short term, Democrats can argue reasonably that raising taxes or slashing programs before the economy has recovered would be bad policy. And they can assert that the commission Obama has named to grapple with the deficit will clarify the trade-offs between tax increases and program cuts. This, in turn, will open the way for a more rational argument about deficits.

It would be nice if things worked out this way. But between now and then lies an election campaign likely to be characterized more by anger than reason, and in which the opposition has the advantage of not being in charge at a moment of great discontent. Sisyphus would understand. And Obama will have to get used to it.   

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


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By felicity, April 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment

Goebbels was able to convince enough German nationals that the Jews were the source of all the problems you-good-Germans are having, have had, are bound to have in future.  Get rid of the Jews (and other minorities such as the Poles and the French) and life will be beautiful and trouble-free.

It was Goebbels who perfected the Big Lie technique of propaganda based on the principle that a lie, if audacious enough and repeated enough times, will be believed by the masses.

I think an argument could be made that some factions within the Republican Party have decided - and never fail to inform us of same - that Obama is the source of America’s problems, that his presidency if allowed to continue will mark the end of the republic as we have known it.

The question is will enough Americans buy their propaganda.  Enough Germans bought Goebbels’ propaganda.

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By ofersince72, April 5, 2010 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

http://americathegrimtruth.wordpress.com

posted 05/Apr/10   by lancefreeman76

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By reynolds, April 5, 2010 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment

is not prometheus the proximate cause of the insurance
company? with fire he gave us need of the fire policy. 
the insurance company gave us marlin perkins. can
anyone link kevin bacon to mutual of omaha?

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RenZo's avatar

By RenZo, April 5, 2010 at 6:47 pm Link to this comment

Where would humanity be without Prometheus, who gave us fire in contravention of the Olympians orders. Sisyphus was a sissy, just pushing a rock up the same hill endlessly, never rebelling. What was he thinking?

At least Prometheus gave us human citizens something truly marvelous, flames that warm us, cook for us, and make steam to drive our engines. Who lately has given us anything so valuable. Maybe Sisyphus was in the service of another master. Olympians at the top of the corporate mountain. Bowling pins in the valley below.

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By gerard, April 5, 2010 at 6:43 pm Link to this comment

Again no mention of the money that would be saved or used to pay off the deficit by stopping the wars. Omitting this makes it sound that war spending is irrelevant to the deficit. Not to mention the relevance of lives lost and/or ruined by it.

Surely it would be difficut for the Republicans to make a strong argument for continuing the wars if stong arguments for stopping them were made?

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By reynolds, April 5, 2010 at 6:28 pm Link to this comment

that was one beleaguered staff member to issue so
sibilant an alliteration. perhaps sisyphus had it
easier because his was a more worthwhile endeavor.

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BarbieQue's avatar

By BarbieQue, April 5, 2010 at 5:16 pm Link to this comment

Overall approval of the ‘health insurance industry empowerment act’ according to a majority of polls showed ~40% in favor.

So, the “Democrats” will rham through more unpopular legislation, calling it a “victory”.

Then, when the “Republicans” get back in power, they’ll do the same thing.

DC: Winner   US CITIZEN: Loser

And so it goes, on and on again. ‘Cept we’re really really broke now.

And in the time it took you to read this about $30,000 has been spent on the occupation and conquering of Afghanistan. And a few hundred more US Citizens have been laid off because their country, with the blessing of Wall street, has outsourced more jobs.

But people haven’t had enough yet.

http://costofwar.com

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By Squeeky, April 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm Link to this comment

For all the nay saying I see on this topic, I wonder if you would feel the same way if your insurance company dropped you when you needed them most? Would you still not accept this health care reform bill if it meant paying your medical bills? Where would your pride be then?

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By John, April 5, 2010 at 9:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama’s great victory in Health Care Reform is a victory for the Insurance and Pharmaceutical companies. And a failure at passing what this country really needs: Single Payer. I don’t view it as a success at all, and ten years from now few people will.

His upcoming Bank reforms are too little too late. We will see another great recession or depression in the next decade-perhaps sooner.

Sure he’s better than a McCain/Palin administration but tell that to the Afghanistan civilians he is killing every day. tell that to our troops who are dying for corporate access to markets.

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By ofersince72, April 5, 2010 at 9:29 am Link to this comment

Only a fool would believe this nonsense.

Passage of the Health ins. reform was a rigged game.
The Centrists got just what they wanted.
All repubs voted against it to make it appear as if
it were a progressive bill, however they were tickled to
death with this legislation.

Jounalists like you are part of America’s problem,
a big, huge part.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Night-Gaunt's avatar

By Night-Gaunt, April 5, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

We shall see just how good the Law is once it is in operation. At least that penalty for not signing up is zero!

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By balkas, April 5, 2010 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

The latest US prestidigitation or the deform,reform of and information, disinformation about [nobody knows what it is]health care is still only a symptom of what ails americans.
But that’s all as system wld ever allow: deform-reform-disinformation! tnx

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By bogi666, April 5, 2010 at 5:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It was the Repubicans which initiated the huge Federal deficits under Reagoon in the 1980’s. The purpose for the deficits being to dole out the bond proceeds, used to finance the debt, to the CORPORATE WELFARE KINGS with the interest and principle paid by individual taxpayer. It finances the Pentagon for the purpose of protecting the interest of the CORPORATE WELFARE KINGS worldwide. Simply put, it’s a protection racket and it should be prosecuted under the RICO act for being illlegal.Simultaneous with Reagoons engineered deficts are the corporate tax cuts. A sweet deal, receive loan proceeds and have other the interest and principle. THE COMMISSION’s purpose will be to indict the entitlement as the reason for the debt not the Pentagon and the CORPORATE WELFARE KINGS which is where the proceeds of the Treasury debt goes, not to entitlements.

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