Monday, August 3, 2009

The Big Picture: Grading a somewhat better week

I'm only going to be able to write the "grading the week" section tonight because the Picturette returned from St. Louis; I'll have the grading the month hopefully tomorrow. Basically, the President spent the past week somewhat recovering from the disaster that was the week before.

Before we get to health care, Obama seemed to pretty much dig himself out of the whole he had dug about race and policing with his "beer summit". Predictably, the media blew the story up, and focused far too much on the beer choice and the superficial aspects and not on the real issue, which is the complex relationship between racial minorities and police forces. This happens to be the issue I deal with at my job, and our ultimate goal is to promote mediation and a frank, honest exchange between police officers and civilians, so from my own perspective it was pretty cool to see that play out on the biggest stage in the world. And, it spurred a number of important newspaper columns and articles about the epidemic of black imprisonment. Is that enough? Not nearly. But at least we were talking about an issue that is sorely underreported. And, I think it strengthens Obama's message of "no excuses" to the black community - which is rooted in him acknowledging the very real inequalities and unfairness which deny blacks equality of opportunity, saying he's lived that too, and but for the grace of God he could be a guy slangin on the corner, or imprisoned, but he is the positive role model for making a different future - all that only connects if your average black person feels that Obama truly gets where they're coming from. If he had just dismissed the issues relating to blacks and the police, I think he would have lost credibility. But he shouldn't have said "stupidly", and also, frankly, Henry Louis Gates isn't the best example - he's highly privileged and well-connected, and his reaction, while certainly arising out of racial grievance, I think also had a lot to do with being an elite with a sense of entitlement who is shocked that he was being treated like an average person. Instead of Obama saying a cop acted stupidly for arresting Gates, I would rather Obama pursue policies that address the much more serious problems of grossly high prison rates and unfair sentencing laws that are the scourge of the non-well-connected black population.

I would also like it if Obama hadn't let his message be sidetracked by this issue during a crucial time for health reform. But, it seems that some of that gave him some time to recalibrate his message, which was urgently necessary, and begin to focus much more on how this will improve the health insurance of the already-insured. We saw this past week that - for all our talk about the corrupt, cowardly Congressmen taking the marching orders of the medical industrial complex - it's an uncomfortable fact that Obama's health care plan, as it is currently understood, is simply not popular. When you go inside the numbers, you see that this unpopularity isn't rooted in concerns about the deficit, or ideological concerns about preserving the free market. No, it's rooted in more people believing reform will damage their own health care than believe it will improve it. Pretty simple. Part of the reason, outrageously, is these scare tactics being spread across the right-wing echo chamber about big government taking away our ability to choose a doctor, rationing your care, and most absurdly, committing euthanasia on old people. The problem is, even if the average person doesn't believe everything the right-wing fearmongers are saying, it plants the seed of doubt, and they tap into a fundamental problem with Obama's messaging: if the emphasis is on cutting costs, and on getting the government involved to do so, it's not too hard to convince people - who for good reason don't trust the government very much to begin with - that Obama's health care reform means the government will ration your care and deny your choice in order to cut costs.

To Obama's credit, he seems to have recognized the deficiencies in his message and was already shifting emphasis toward the ol' "what's in it for me" question - which if you're a Democrat, the party of economic security for the average American, and you're proposing health care reform, should be a no-brainer to emphasize. Here's a moment where the choice of Obama over Hillary seems to be paying off - while Hillary like most politicians is too stubborn, refusing to admit when they're wrong, casting the blame around - Obama is less emotionally invested in his strategies and is more capable of frank self-assessment and course correction. He has not been as good at this in the Presidency as I would like, spending too much time defending and justifying rather than re-evaluating, but hopefully in these next few weeks we'll see a more aggressive and more focused Obama, one who recognizes that his major task is to convince the average American that health care reform will improve his or her health care.

The Senate continued to delay, with Max Baucus once again failing and tossing out, in the manner of a 12-year-old "promising" to clean his room at some later time, the date of September 15 as a deadline for his stupid gang to come to an awful compromise. Of course, Republican Mike Enzi, a real snake in the grass, is refusing to abide by even that extraordinarily delayed deadline. That should mark the last time any person in power - who of course are all Democrats these days thanks to the American electorate - even speaks to a Republican until that Clown Party does a thorough about-face.

But the big positive, as reported in a special Late Night Strike (this is a 24-hour news operation folks!), was that the House Energy and Commerce passed a solid health care bill, one that is substantially similar to the other two committees, and didn't give too much away to the conservative Blue Dogs. Instead of bringing down costs by cutting subsidies that would aid the working class in buying insurance - only a central goal of this entire plan, politically and substantively - they found more savings in some of the vast piles of waste in the health care system. For once, we can say: solid job, U.S. House of Representatives. Of course, the caveat is that the bill won't be voted on until after the August recess. While we wish they had just got this over with before the demogogues come out in full force, at least we're further along than ever, we've got Obama to make the case, and the rest of the Democrats and the liberal media seem to finally be kicking into gear as we head into the August recess.

So altogether, a B for Obama this week. That may seem a little high, but I sense that he realized what the problems were and made some real adjustments. I also think that he's hung back a bit and let the right go overboard in their attacks, setting himself up for the counterpunch - a strategy he used to great effect in the campaign and to some degree with the stimulus. Along with saying "what's in it for you?", he will say "Are we really going to blow this opportunity? We're better than that." In contrast with these nihilistic wackos chanting "Just Say No" to health care reform, I think, at least I hope, that this positive message will resonate. We'll see.

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