A couple of months ago, an otherwise cheerful neighborhood block party on our quiet street caused some agitation among the attendees when one of the neighbors began to describe President Obama as un-American, a socialist and a terrorist. He was angry with Obama's economic stimulus and distrustful of his health care plan. Even though there were only three people at that gathering who had voted for Obama (my husband and I accounted for two), even some of my Republican neighbors were a bit startled by the harsh rhetoric.
There is danger in exaggeration, in describing things as much worse than they really are. Not only does one thoroughly enrage the opposition, even those who agree with you in principle may not be willing to act with you. Although my neighbor, who claims to be a libertarian, did not call Obama a Nazi, the right wing opposition to health care reform routinely and loudly smears the president with Hitlerian analogies. Words like the Final Solution, Nazi and Mein Kampf are being carelessly tossed about by reactionary loud mouths like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. A swastika graffiti defaced the sign bearing the name of a Democratic congressman who supports Obama. Major and minor GOP operatives are gloating about spontaneous grass roots uprisings against the dreaded Obamacare. Protesters are showing up at town hall meetings with guns (even assault rifles) and pictures of Obama donning a clipped mustache. Yesterday a woman brandishing a placard depicting Obama as Hitler, asked Rep Barney Frank (D-MA) why he supported a "Nazi" like policy. She quickly learned that it was a mistake to direct such a stupid question at a smart, gay, Jewish man with a sharp tongue.
The funny thing is that the fear mongers who warn us that a national health care system is equal to the National Socialist Party of 1930s' Germany, willfully ignore the reality of health insurance in America - that we are currently at the mercy of jackbooted private insurance companies goosestepping over the sick and dying all the way to the bank. Death panels already exist and rationing of health care is routine in the free market system that they so adore. Please read columnist Froma Harrop's account of her family's ordeal with the insurance company during a period of life and death decision making.
Have the GOP partisans, whose elected leaders have not condemned any of the tactics described above, gone too far in vilifying Obama and the Democratic Party's efforts at overhauling the health care system? Have they fallen victim to Godwin's Law too early in the debate? Most Americans are satisfied with their doctors but many are scared of their insurance companies. Obama will do well to tout the Health Care Reform bill as the Insurance Reform bill. I am hoping that the loud and abusive theatrics of the angry and armed right wingers will back fire (no pun intended) since most Americans would like to see their health insurance system improved. I would however be more reassured if I didn't find President Obama's insistence on feel-good bi-partisan solutions a bit disappointing. In his efforts to calm too many nerves and smooth too many ruffled feathers, he has wasted precious time trying to find compromises where no common ground exists. Has Obama squandered his political capital by ceding too much ground and time to adversaries who merely wish to see him fail?
After his brilliant beginning, the president suddenly looks weak and unreliable. That will be the common interpretation around Washington of the president's abrupt retreat on substantive heathcare reform. Give Barack Obama a hard shove, they will say, rough him up a bit and he folds. A few weeks back, the president was touting a "public option" health plan as an essential element in reform. Now he says, take it or leave it. Whatever Congress does, he's okay with that.
The White House quickly added confusion to the outrage by insisting the president didn't really say anything new. He's just being flexible. He still wants what most Democrats want--a government plan that gives people a real escape from the profit-driven clutches of the insurance companies. But serious power players will not be fooled by the nimble spinners. Obama choked. He raised the white flag, even before the fight got underway in Congress.
He hands the insurance industry a huge victory. He rewards the right-wing frothers who have been calling him Adolph Hitler or Dr. Death. He caves to the conservative bias of the major media who insist only bipartisan consensus is acceptable for big reform (a standard they never invoked during the Bush years). Obama is deluded if he thinks this will win him any peace or respect or Republican votes. Weakness does not lead to consensus in Washington. It leads to more weakness. The Party of No intends to bring him down and will pile on. Obama has inadvertently demonstrated their strategy of vicious invective seems to be working.
I don't know if things are as bad as the Nation article suggests. I think the president still has time to pivot around, steel his nerves and gather support from those who are committed to correcting the current flawed system of health care in America. Perhaps he will learn to ignore the name callers. Just today he went on the air and met with Democratic members of Congress to dispel some of the blatant misinformation spread by his critics whose only aim is to muddy the waters and stall any progress on this front. Obama called health care reform a moral obligation.
When the orchestrated hysteria of the town hall fiascoes first began, I used to wince every time I heard Obama speak of bi-partisanship and then get whacked with derision, lies and abuse. Now I am beginning to get impatient and even a little angry with his unwillingness so far to exercise his confrontational skills (if he has any, that is) in a timely fashion. He doesn't have to do quite what Barney Frank did. But a toned down variation of it will be refreshing. It is time to upgrade the campaign slogan of "Yes, we can" to the presidential drumbeat of "Yes, we will."