For the second time, officials in the Obama administration (at a considerably higher level than HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this time) seem to be walking back the president's commitment to the public option, in advance of his speech to a joint session of Congress later this week. If past history is any indication, it is entirely possible that further statements and clarifications that directly contradict today's will be issued tomorrow--but the very fact that the administration is even looking ready to give up on this wimpy-ass public option is a matter for concern.
As I said last month, the only way we're ever going to get real health-care reform (as opposed to a purely cosmetic health-insurance reform, which is basically what the administration's plan boils down to) is to go the single-payer route. That option was never even on the table. The one plus to the public option was that it would at least fire a warning shot across the bow of the rapacious insurance giants that are the real arbiters of health care in America. It isn't a matter between a patient and her doctor (which it should be, and the way Republicans, Blue Dogs, and other opponents of reform would like to pretend that it is)--rather, it's a matter between a patient, her doctor, and the insurance company that mediates everything the first two partners do. Absent some kind of new regulations, these companies will continue on as they have been--raising premiums well beyond the rate of inflation, reducing coverage, cutting services, refusing to pay for expensive or experimental treatments, and generally doing everything they can to suck as much profit out of as many people as possible--never mind that their purpose is supposed to be helping those people get the medical care and attention that they need.
I was never under the impression that Obama was a liberal, and I certainly didn't buy into all of the hype his campaign put out about hope and change. That was simply rhetoric and a marketing strategy. Anyone who's looked at his record (to say nothing of his campaign platform) can see that Obama is a centrist: slightly to the left of center, yes, but still a centrist. Consequently, I'm not terribly surprised to see him embracing a centrist and fairly corporatist agenda through the first eight months of his term in office.
But what does surprise me--and concern me, as it should concern Democrats and progressives and liberals of whatever political stripe--is how staggeringly ineffective the Obama administration has been at selling its message. This is a huge contrast to the campaign, where message discipline was one of the hallmarks of the operation that crushed all opposition in a bruising two-year primary, and then snuffed the life out of the McCain-Palin ticket in the general. What we have seen since Inauguration Day has been a hapless, unfocused, undisciplined tacking hither and yon, without any discernible course. Further darkening the horizon, one of the few campaign promises President Obama has yet delivered on is his desire to be a bipartisan president.
Bipartisanship has become the shibboleth of the Obama administration. If these people had a signature tune, it should be "Bipartisanship über alles." Long past the time when most people would have given up, long past the time when the handwriting on the wall should have been obvious to the man some have called one of the most astute politicians in a generation, the president continues to woo his opponents, even though those opponents have made it perfectly clear that the only thing they want to do with the president is hand him one defeat after another. There will be no working compromises: they want what they want, and the only acceptable outcome to them will be getting it. Never mind that the Democrats have working majorities in both houses of Congress--Obama doesn't seem willing or able to move forward on anything unless he's got cover from the other side of the aisle.
His political advisers had better be sending him memos telling him to back off on that, because the hemorrhaging is getting serious. Obama hasn't picked up any ground with Republicans (not surprisingly), and he's lost a plurality of independents who are now solidly on the fence. But the worst drop in support for the president has come from his base: Democrats' opinion of the president's job performance has been trending steadily downward, just as the campaign season for the 2010 midterm elections gets under way.
Ergo, the title of this post. The president has gotten off track, and he needs to hear it from us--just as he asked us to do during the campaign. The problem there is, there's a very small, but even more incredibly vocal cadre of Obama hyper-partisans who will tromp on anything that looks even remotely like dissent, criticism, or any suggestion that President Obama isn't the smartest, most perfect, bestest, most liberal, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious president EVAH! Speak but one discouraging word about the president, and these folks come out of the woodwork screaming about how it's only been eight months, and how Bush the Lesser left the country in such a God-awful mess how could anyone possibly have done better than Obama, and how he's way smarter than we are, and a much better politician, so shut the fuck up with your negativity already and wait and see: he'll get around to giving you your goddamn pony, you whiny single-issue voter--and oh, by the way, I suppose you think a President McCain or a President Palin or a President Romney would be doing a better job?
It's too early to think about primarying the president. But it's not too early to start expressing concern about the direction and tone his first year in office has taken. It is certainly time to let the party leaders know that unless things start changing for the better, we're going to be a lot harder to get motivated to donate and work for Democratic candidates next year--let alone this president in 2012. Sure, it's only been eight months--but eight months is enough time to get a pretty good idea of what the next eight months are going to look like. Thus far, I don't like the picture I'm seeing.