Barack Obama and the Politics of Not Yet

When I read President Obama’s comments last month cautioning the country against radical change, saying “the average American doesn’t think we have to tear down the system” and “they just don’t want to see crazy stuff,” my first thought was of Dr. Martin Luther King’s clarion call for justice encapsulated in the title of his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait.” In this current era of the greatest wealth inequality in history, how might Dr. King respond to President Obama, when he calls on us to reject radical change?

Although no names were mentioned, it was clear Obama was referring to Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and there’s no question that radical plan #1 under discussion is universal health care. The second thought that ran through my mind was of Obama shortly after the historic 2008 Presidential election, when he introduced the campaign for his signature Affordable Care Act by telling the nation that if we were to design a healthcare system from scratch, then single-payer would be the best way to go, but that our nation wasn’t ready for that so he’d have to work within the existing system. There would be no debate in Congress on single-payer, even though polls at the time showed upwards of 65% of Americans in favor of such a plan.

And here he is, ten years later, telling us that we’re still not ready for radical change—you know, “crazy stuff” like the type of universal medical coverage provided in every other industrialized nation in the world.

More skeptical observers point to his expansion of drone warfare, continued bombing of the Middle East, record deportations, record wealth inequality, bankers and torturers getting off scot-free, broken promises on the public option and GMOs and say, no, not so much.As Obama inserts himself in the 2020 election – with some news reports suggesting he may engage further to help prevent a Sanders nomination—he is fast becoming a symbol of the divide within the Democratic party, between those who caution against (or fear) real change and those who are long tired of waiting. Even Obama’s policy record has become a split screen. Some of his fans—no doubt also longing for a President who can speak complete English sentences and not start a new scandal every week—reminisce about what they consider his bold progressive achievements, usually starting with the ACA. More skeptical observers point to his expansion of drone warfare, continued bombing of the Middle East, record deportations, record wealth inequality, bankers and torturers getting off scot-free, broken promises on the public option and GMOs and say, no, not so much.

One might think a factor that could unite folks on the left is an understanding of the corrupting influence of money in politics, but in that regard Obama appears as Teflon-coated as Ronald Reagan ever was with his supporters. When Obama ran for President one of the largest sources of contributions to his campaign was the infamous Wall St. firm Goldman-Sachs. He started his drive for the ACA by capitulating completely to pharmaceutical companies (there would be no negotiations over drug prices), and to insurance companies by promoting what was originally a Republican plan. He entered his post-Presidential tenure by immediately accepting lucrative speaking gigs from Wall St. companies. How can it mean nothing, at a time when three individual Americans possess more wealth than half the country, to be taking advice from someone who gladly accepts money from and hangs out with the 1%? (Not surprisingly, his recent comments were made at a meeting of Democratic Party “mega-donors.”)

The inability or unwillingness to “follow the money” continues in the current nomination fight, as Mayor Pete Buttigieg has risen in the eyes of many on the left. (Or to be more accurate, many white people on the left, since he polls at about 0% among African-Americans.)

With Buttigieg we are watching his funder-driven political transformation in real time. On Medicare for All he has gone from being “all-in” to now being one of its strongest critics, in direct relation to the money he’s receiving from pharmaceutical and health insurance interests. (He’s second in this category among Democrats to Joe Biden, and second only to Donald Trump in all contributions from the health sector.) This is a candidate who has been labeled a “stealth corporate reformer” by Diane Ravitch, the nation’s pre-eminent public education advocate, when she took a deeper look at his plans and background after being invited to a Mayor Pete fundraiser hosted by a billionaire backer of charter schools. Buttigieg is also a new favorite for Wall St. donors, and he is far and away the preferred Democrat for billionaires – at last count he has 24 billionaires contributing to his campaign, compared to 13 for Biden, 2 for Warren, and 0 (of course) for Sanders.

Can anyone seriously believe that all this money from the ultra-wealthy, Wall St., and health insurance industry has no effect on Buttigieg’s proposed policies and what he would do if elected? Or that the interest of these donors is to produce the most affordable, cost-effective and comprehensive health care for the American people possible?

According to a 2018 report, we still have approximately 45,000 people in this country dying every year due to lack of medical insurance.Which brings us back to Obama’s comments, and what Dr. King once called “the fierce urgency of now.” Obama added further to his revolution-dampening critique of the “crazy stuff” by claiming that Americans only “want to see things a little more fair, they want to see things a little more just.” Really?

Incredibly enough, almost ten years after implementation of the ACA the U.S. still has more than 500,000 personal bankruptcies each year due to medical expenses—a figure that’s close to zero in countries with national health care. According to a 2018 report, we still have approximately 45,000 people in this country dying every year due to lack of medical insurance.

In full disclosure, while I have supported Medicare for All for well over a decade, I should add that my brother Glenn Alan Clark was one of those numbers above. I watched how, even with the ACA, he was slowly crushed and driven to the edge of bankruptcy by the expense of his cancer treatments. And I sat with him for the final weeks of his life when he finally succumbed to the disease this past June, at the still relatively young age of 61.

If I had the chance to speak directly to President Obama, I would ask him very specifically what “a little more fair” and “a little more just” means when it comes to health care in this country. Does a “little more fair” mean that only 250,000 individuals and families will go bankrupt from medical expenses, as opposed to half a million? Would it be a “little more just” if only 25,000 people died every year from lack of insurance, as opposed to nearly 50,000? What if it was your brother, sister, or child who was dying?

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In “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. King called the movement he was inspiring and leading a “negro revolution.” Not surprisingly, Sen. Sanders speaks regularly of the political revolution necessary to secure policies like Medicare for All. And yet clearly there are those still very much in power in the Democratic Party who want to make sure no such revolution happens. This elite may make sure you’ll get “a little more” of what you desperately need, but most certainly not systemic changes to a brutal and inhumane health care system. Not ten years ago, not now, not ever.

A change is coming, and it’s no accident that Sanders has more donors, more volunteers, and more passionate supporters than his rivals. People are fed up. People are tired of getting sick and dying while waiting for “a little more” justice.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” In a time already as dangerously volatile and divided as ours, with so many people hurting, perhaps it is time for the Obamas of the world to step aside and let some peaceful revolution happen for a change.

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Common Dreams


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