Thursday, September 10, 2009

The speech that did what speeches do

I'm sure some of you right-wing Industrial Jazz Group fans (if indeed there are any of you still out there) are tired of hearing me rant about my own political views, and would prefer instead more inside scoop about preparations for the upcoming tour. I promise I'll get back to music-related posting soon.

In the meantime: for what it's worth (not much, I know), I must admit that I breathed a small sigh of relief as I watched the speech last night. Part of that was attributable to the fact that Obama had clearly put on his "angry face" -- a look that I associate with the Pulp Fiction-inspired image that circulated during the election.

Still, given the general frenzy of the last few weeks, I was prepared for disappointing news of one sort or another. So I was genuinely surprised when he got to this:

My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition. That's how the market works. [...]

Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors. I just want to hold them accountable. (Applause.) And the insurance reforms that I've already mentioned would do just that. But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. (Applause.) [...]

[...] the insurance companies and their allies [...] argue that these private companies can't fairly compete with the government. And they'd be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option. But they won't be. I've insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects. But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities. (Applause.)

Now, I realize that that particular defense of the public option is not as forceful as some progressives would like. I also realize that some will claim that any perceived "toughness" in the health speech as a whole was merely a response to pressure from the left, that it doesn't represent Obama's true beliefs, and that he will "sell us out" at the first opportunity.

I suppose that's one way of looking at it. But I guess I prefer the take articulated by Balloon Juice's Anne Laurie:

As for last night’s speech, it should always be remembered: President Obama started his career as a community organizer. Which means he is used to (and most excellently skilled at) running an organization by “working for consensus”, a set of skills quite different from the ones needed for running the more usual top-down business/military/GOP organizations. In an authoritarian organization, for better or worse, at the end of the day what the Big Kahuna says goes is what goes. Even if he’s the best, most open-minded Big Kahuna in the universe, heading up a team of uniquely gifted & prickly talents -- he can ask for input, he can get input he hasn’t asked for, but when hammer meets nail it’s the Big Kahuna’s hammer that gets to choose the nail. And the other members of the team are always aware of this reality; barring things get so bad that grenades get rolled into the colonel’s tent, no private in the army forgets for long that the colonel is the one setting the agenda.

In a consensus-driven organization, on the other hand, everybody must have a chance to give an opinion... even when their opinion is stupid, crazy, laughable, and wrong. Being a successful community organizer means knowing that the local Mr. Tinfoil or Ms. Crystal-Bunny will show up at every goddamned meeting and waste everybody else’s time ranting about black helicopters or the necessity for regular high colonics. A large part of the job of being a successful community organizer is ensuring that the resident nutball gets a respectful hearing without being permitted to permanently derail the meeting. Because, sad as it may seem, the rest of us skittish flaky primates want to know (even when we don’t articulate it) that “our guy” will take our ideas seriously, even when we’re not sure our ideas are worth taking seriously. When Obama stands up before Congress and explains that his health care reform proposals will involve neither death panels or government-paid abortions (unfortunately, IMO), he is reassuring the 80% of his audience who have no strong feelings about either topic that he will, at another time, be open to their opinions, however formless and/or gormless. This is important, even when it means that the meetings keep running into overtime and that us sane people have to listen to an awful lot of extremely random crap.

After eight years of the Cheney Regency’s “My way or the Gitmo highway” authoritarianism, anything less forceful than sloganeering and explicit threats seems like pretty weak sauce to those of us who’ve been paying attention. The question, of course, is whether President Obama’s target audience -- the vast quivering voting-eligible majority that isn’t ideologically wed to either Invisible-Hand-of-the-Marketplace-Uber-Alles or Medicare-for-All-Americans-Immediately -- considers his speech, and his administration’s work over the next few weeks and months, as sensible compromise or timid obfuscation. Perhaps we’d get better proposals and a more useful final bill if President Obama would channel his Inner Authoritarian a little more, but his gift for seeking consensus seems to be why Obama is President and certain other people are not. Maybe all the histronics are simply a necessary part of the process of committing democracy.

Yes. Or even part of the process of "rehabilitating the idea of government" (to borrow an eloquent phrase from ObWi blogger Publius).

My main hope is that the speech will do what speeches are supposed to do: galvanize and energize (in a much broader and more intense way than is currently the case) those who are actually interested in real change for the health insurance system. What seems to have been missing until now is something along the lines of the level of organizing that obtained during the election itself. That is where true reform is going to come from.

Which reminds me: I have some phone calls to make.

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Speaking of "galvanizing": gadzooks! The Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here. Thank you!

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