Last week, in this space, I suggested that History will likely judge President Obama a failure, largely because of his failure to lead Americans in discovering a new sense of national identity – rooted in our past, but relevant to the circumstances of the present.
This is not, of course, the only reason for Mr. Obama’s record of presidential under-achievement. A good deal of his failure can be attributed to the extraordinary efforts of the Republican Party – and, in particular – the faux grassroots Tea Party movement.
Tea Party Republicanism appeared even before Mr. Obama’s election. Indeed, historians and commentators trace its antecedents back over four decades, to the efforts of Big Tobacco to create a popular base opposing the regulation of tobacco products. (The modern use of the term “Tea Party” is, of course, more recent – probably dating from 2007, a year before Mr. Obama’s election).
No impartial observer can doubt that – whatever the populist component of the movement – the Tea Party’s rapid rise was greatly assisted, and its platform largely shaped, by billionaire libertarians and radio talk show hosts serving their interests.
Nor can any fair observer doubt that the movement gained great momentum after the election of a President whose every attribute seemed ideally suited to attract the hostility of the more populist, less-sophisticated elements of conservative Republicanism.
It is difficult to imagine that any other prominent Democrat – even Hillary Clinton – would have attracted quite the virulence which has poured out upon Mr. Obama since his nomination and subsequent election in 2008.
That said, Mr. Obama bears a great deal of responsibility for the success of the Tea Party and its billionaire masterminds. Indeed, it might be said that only a party as incompetent as the Democrats could have saved the Republican Party from entire irrelevance after eight years of George W. Bush.
The secret to the Democrats’ failure was perhaps best summed-up in the movie, Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
The outstanding example of this failure to communicate was, of course, the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare.” From the outset, the President and his advisors decided – disastrously – to give away their most potent bargaining chip by “taking off the table” a single-payer healthcare system.
Single-payer systems exist, in one form or another, in nearly every modern society on the planet. Nearly every such system works better – or is, at least, fairer – than American’s hodge-podge of mutually-inconsistent systems. America has one health care system – really, fifty – one for the very poor; another for the disabled; another for the working poor; another for those with well-paid jobs; another for the elderly; another for the active military; another for veterans; and yet another for the very privileged (including members of Congress).
The above is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Actually, it is absurd to speak of America’s having a health-care “system” at all. What we have is a mess.
By taking single-payer off the table, Mr. Obama gave away the thing most feared by America’s for-profit health sector – the hospital corporations; pharmaceuticals industry; medical profession; health insurance industry; etc. An easy-to-explain, single-payer system might well have won widespread public support at the beginning of a new President’s administration.
But no such plan was offered. At that point, all hope of truly effective reform simply vanished.
The result was a severely-compromised mish-mash of provisions which did little or nothing to cut health-care costs; rein in the profits of corporations which batten on our fears and illnesses; reduce the size of the Federal and state health-care bureaucracies; or even help us lead healthier lives.
Even this feeble compromise was immediately labelled “socialized medicine” – which it manifestly was not – and subjected to a campaign of disinformation which would have earned the admiration of propagandists from Goebbels to Pravda.
But again, the fault lies as much with Mr. Obama, Harry Reid, and the rest of the Democratic leadership as with their conservative and corporate opponents – because the Democrats allowed their opponents’ extraordinary fabrications to go largely unanswered.
Confronted by the threat of filibuster in the Senate, Mr. Obama and the Senate leadership further weakened the ACA. Instead of welcoming a debate which would, almost certainly, have educated all of us – including a good many members of Congress – about the actual contents of the bill, the Democrats caved on important reforms.
A full-scale debate would have answered most of the Republicans’ criticisms of the ACA. It might even have revealed some of the ambiguities and poorly-drafted provisions which have caused so much trouble in the ACA’s implementation.
Most of all, a full-scale debate would have allowed us – the American people – to educate ourselves about the great changes which our new President proposed to enact.
But no great debate took place.
Obamacare was the first indication that our new President was not serious about educating the American people as a whole. Instead, he returned to campaign mode – rallying those already disposed to support him; ignoring those who distrusted him; and, most important, failing to connect with the millions who had yet to make up their minds.
The result? In 2010, with many confused and ill-informed Americans staying at home, the Tea Party enjoyed its greatest electoral success. Republican gained control of the House of Representatives – a control they have held ever since.
With that, Mr. Obama’s prospects for future achievements vanished forever.
A President’s greatest opportunity for leadership lies in communicating with, and educating, the American people. The great Presidents have always known this.
Those who do not become mere footnotes in our history textbooks.