Obama, Progressives Face Moment of Truth

by Randy Shaw on June 16, 2009

President Obama and his progressive supporters are at a turning point. The heart of Obama’s progressive policy agenda — universal health care — is confronting increasing opposition, and the grassroots activists that put Barack Obama in the White House must pressure wavering Senators to back the Change We Need. But mobilizing is proving difficult, as progressives are split over Obama’s plan. Many single payer advocates are unwilling to build support for the President’s “public option,” and some even argue that it is better to wait for single payer than to pass an alternative plan. Unlike Bill Clinton, President Obama knows how to mobilize around major issues, and some form of health care legislation will pass. But unless activists step up, Obama will lack the Senate support to enact a public option, and a precedent will be set for passing similarly watered-down measures on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and comprehensive immigration reform. The outcome on health care could decide whether we are embarking on a new progressive era, or are unable to overcome institutional barriers to real change.

Health Care Déjà Vu?

Corporate America got a three-fer when it defeated the Clinton health care legislation in 1994: it killed reform, undermined public trust in the Clinton-Gore “Putting People First” platform, and created such widespread disappointment in the Democrats that corporate Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections.

Now Corporate America sees health care as offering a similar opportunity to stop the Obama Express in its tracks. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association, and insurance and pharmaceutical companies are trying to kill the health care plan’s public option, and then claim to be team players by supporting watered-down legislation.

While Obama would have little choice but to claim victory, such a result would profoundly alienate the president’s grassroots base.

Learning from the Past

Progressives can avoid this troubling outcome by remembering two fundamental lessons of the past.

First, progressive legislative change never happens without grassroots mobilizing. If activists are only bystanders, and think that it is sufficient to watch or read about Obama wooing supporters for a public plan, they are badly mistaken.

Second, passing on a good plan in order to build further support for a potentially much better plan has been a losing strategy in the area of health care reform. I cannot help recalling the all-out single-payer campaign waged in 1994 by the California Nurses Association and other health activists. While proponents thought the measure might now win, the argument was that it would build support for a single payer measure that could prevail.

Fifteen years later, no other single payer initiative has appeared on the California ballot. And while single payer passed the Legislature, it did so when members knew the Governor would veto it.

So I do not accept the argument that defeating an Obama health care reform with a public option gets us closer to passing single-payer. To the contrary, such a defeat makes future efforts to pass health care reform under Obama extremely unlikely. This means no renewed effort for major health care reform until at least 2017 (and if a Republican beats Obama in 2012, they will not be backers of single-payer health care).

Time to Act

Fortunately, many progressives understand this.

Howard Dean’s Democracy for America is making an all-out push for the public plan, and has already mobilized against Democrats supporting a proposal whereby the public plan would not start until “triggered” by the insurance and medical industry’s failure to reform.

As if the past fifty years have not given them enough time.

DFA is also fighting Senator Kent Conrad’s bizarre “co-op” alternative to a public option. The group argues that co-ops would be more expensive because they lack the bargaining clout that a public option would use to reduce costs. Co-ops also lack the government oversight necessary to ensure quality care.

Last weekend saw the return of the Camp Obama’s, the organizing training schools that helped Obama win the primaries, the general election, and now are being used to build a movement for universal health care. The San Francisco event brought out 300 people on Saturday, a far better showing than the Organizing for America events the preceding weekend.

The fact that Obama’s team felt the need to restart the Camp Obama’s may show its own doubts about Organizing for America’s capacity to reconnect with Obama campaign volunteers. If OFA can’t help with health care, its reason for existence is unclear.

Many activists are associated with the Health Care for America Now (H-CAN) coalition, which is also pushing the public option. Together, sufficient grassroots mobilizing may be emerging to carry the day, but it remains nip and tuck.

Health Care the Linchpin

President Obama’s entire 2009 agenda is dictated by health care. All other key progressive issues, including EFCA and Immigration Reform, are taking a backseat.

Some believe Obama wants a deal struck on EFCA before the summer recess in order to clear the deck for enacting health care in the fall. Legalizing the eight-twelve million undocumented immigrants clearly awaits a resolution on health care, which could push consideration into early 2010.

It is hard to imagine progressive victories on either measure if Obama gets so rolled on health care that he is left to announce a hollow victory. In contrast, enacting a progressive health care measure will embolden Obama’s base, creating momentum for enacting other key reforms.

Six months into the Obama Presidency, a critical juncture has been reached. And as Obama regularly said on the campaign trail, now is the time to make a difference.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

Filed under: Archive