Saturday, November 8, 2008

President-Elect Obama

"Marvin..what to we do now?"

The title comes from the last line spoken by Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” a 1972 Oscar-winning film about an idealistic young man who gradually sells out to his campaign handlers and is elected to the U.S. Senate from California. Aside from starting out young and idealistic and ending up winning, Redford’s Bill McKay is virtually the exact opposite of Barack Obama. Which is a good thing.

The question, however, is appropriate. What do we do now? All the pundits are now speculating what Obama will do now, and most of them are also making suggestions. Some want him to be slow and moderate, others think he should rally the substantial Democratic majority in Congress to go on a full-scale liberal offensive. I figure Obama will consult with a lot of other smart people and then come up with the wisest course of action. He probably already has several plans ready to go on Jan. 20.

Obama made it clear in his victory speech Tuesday night that he expects all of us to contribute. His election was made possible by the thousands of people who volunteered and organized on his behalf. It appears he is looking for the same kind of service to the governing of the country. I’m sure he will find a way to turn a phrase that basically means the same as John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

So what do we do?

We know what Obama will have to do immediately: First, get the U.S. economy back on stable footing and promote new jobs, and second, deal with several major international problems that include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and our disgruntled allies in Europe. I’m sure he also will start cleansing the entire federal government of the incompetent right wing Bush appointees who have flouted the laws they are charged with enforcing and often decimated their agencies for the personal gain of their friends and fellow plutocrats.

Conventional wisdom says Obama's window of opportunity is his first 100 days in office—the honeymoon period. This is ridiculous. A candidate spends almost two years campaigning for the job and then only has about three months to get anything done? The theme comes from Franklin Roosevelt's legendary “First 100 Days,” when he proposed and a compliant Congress passed a spectrum of relief bills aimed at saving banks and spurring economic activity. This is when many of the New Deal acronyms got started—CCC, WPA, TVA and the like.

Obama will also have a pretty compliant Congress—after all, several Senators and possibly dozens of House members owe their election to his coattails, including Oregon's own Jeff Merkley. He will get a lot of what he wants. Will it be what we want and need?

He has invited our participation. We have to tell him what we think. The President-elect and all those new members of Congress. Obama comes off as a visionary, but he's above all a pragmatist. He's going to go for what will work best. At some point, he's going to run into his own campaign promises and proposals.

For example, health care. Of all the positions Obama took during the election, his health care proposal is the weakest. Hillary Clinton has a better idea—the main difference being that in her plan everyone is mandated to carry insurance. Ron Wyden's program goes further. But what works best is a simple single-payer universal health care plan, the kind that all other developed nations have. As well as people in the U.S. who are older than 65.

There shouldn't be a debate about this any more than there should be a debate about evolution or global warming. It's just a fact that single payer systems cover a lot more people at a lot less cost, and that the quality of care is usually better than in the U.S. Of course, it's “socialized medicine” according to its opponents (mostly Republicans, DLC Democrats, and insurance companies.). A survey last year found that most doctors support this kind of universal health care. Even more surprising, more Americans say “socialized medicine” would be better than our current system than say it would be worse.

Socialist? Who Cares?

The term “socialist” seems to have lost its panic-inducing power. Both John McCain and Sarah Palin repeatedly denounced Obama as a socialist for proposing to raise the top income tax rate from 35% to 39%. Evidently, the American electorate didn't believe McCain or didn't care. More than a few, I assume, understood that progress taxation, first implemented by McCain's hero Teddy Roosevelt, is not socialism. In fact, Adam Smith advocated it.

I'm not a socialist, but there are endeavors better left to the government. The military, for example. The Bushies outsourced military operations in Iraq and the consequences weren't good. It's very scary to have a large corporation (I.e., Blackwater) whose revenues depend on the waging of war. A government-run basic retirement account (Social Security) certainly looks better these days than the Bush/McCain notion of having each of us invest in the stock market. Public education, despite its many faults, is also something the free market can't adequately replace.

And so it should be with providing citizens with the means to pay for essential health care. This doesn't mean the government gets into the business of running hospitals or hiring doctors. It means the government takes over the role of insurance companies. That in itself will cut costs for health care.

Crucial to Economic Health

The cost of health insurance is central to our economy. Employers large and small have to scale back hiring because their health care plans are too expensive. Or else they are cutting off health insurance if they don't have a union or are in an industry that has to compete for skilled workers. It's really hard to expand your business if you can't afford to hire new people.

On the other hand, there are potential entrepreneurs who could be starting their own businesses, but instead stay married to their old companies because they can't afford to lose their health insurance.

In addition, studies show that around half of all personal bankruptcies filed in the past several years have resulted from the inability to pay huge medical bills. Rising health care costs are also a factor in the mortgage meltdown.

I have a long list of items for Obama to accomplish, but this one is right at the top. As soon as the new Congress is seated, there will be bills introduced to address health care. Obama will have his introduced, Wyden's will be back and there may be a few more floated out there. But any fix that involves insurance companies won't be a real fix. At this point, with the Republicans' laissez-faire ideology totally discredited, the people are ready for single payer health insurance. We need to make sure our representatives know that.

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