Searching for Obama: Connecting the Dots between the Man and His (Health Care) Plan

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Barack Obama’s health care plan has been under heavy scrutiny since it was released this past Tuesday. Journalists, health care gurus and political bloggers alike have all thrown their two cents into the fray, offering a variety of thoughtful observations on the matter. Although there will certainly be more on the horizon, two stood out as I sat down to write this. Jonathon Cohn’s “Barack Obama’s Cautious Health Care Plan” on the The NewRepublic’s website gave short shrift to the “mixed” feelings he has about Obama’s plan. According to Cohn’s reasoning, Edwards’s plan is truly “universal” because it would require all Americans to get insurance by 2012; meanwhile, Obama’s would only require insurance for every child in the same time span and is therefore only aspirational. While glossing over the particulars of the plan, Cohn did a far more meticulous job deciphering what Obama’s failure to issue a “mandate” requiring every American to get insurance tells us “about the candidate who settled upon them.” (italics added). What Cohn ‘uncovered’ was that Obama’s reticence reflects both a policy and political concern on the candidate’s part.   

“Obama doesn’t want to make people buy insurance until, first, he’s sure he’s made it affordable. Otherwise, he fears, some working-class people would be forced to buy insurance when, in fact, doing so would impose real financial hardship.”

 While he acknowledges this as a very real concern, Cohn considers it “an eminently solvable one” that should not deter the issuance of a mandate.  

“You can browbeat the insurers into providing cheaper private coverage; you can spend more money on subsidies; or you beef up public programs as alternatives. In a real pinch, you can even loosen the mandates temporarily, to buy a little extra time. Whatever–the point is that, once the mandate is in place, you’ve pretty much locked yourself in to providing insurance to everybody, one way or another. And that’s precisely what should happen.”

Cohn’s reading of Obama’s “political” concern is far more grounded in the recent history of the health care fight.

“Like so many in the Democratic Party, Obama’s advisers remember all too well how excessive ambition killed the
Clinton plan politically. They don’t want to make that mistake again. They fear a mandate sounds scarier to the public, particularly middle-class voters. If, on the other hand, they create the structures for expanding coverage, people will get accustomed to having those mechanisms around–and requiring that everybody get insurance wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

Cohn’s response to what is basically an argument that he imposed on Obama: “Everybody talks about mandates now…[t]he idea just isn’t that controversial anymore.”

Ultimately, Cohn’s criticism of Obama’s plan isn’t about what will work and won’t work, but about the lack of chutpah on the candidate’s part, which, in the final analysis, boils down to little more than a matter of opinion when you consider the nerve it takes to run for President in the first place.

Ezra Klein’s article, “A Lack of Audacity,” in The American Prospect offers a similar criticism of the Obama health care plan in that it seeks to link the plan with the man.

“It is a plan with the potential to be universal, rather than a universal plan. In that respect, it is very much like Obama himself,” Klein writes in one breath. In the next he writes, “All the ingredients are in place for this to be a great plan…but, in each case, at the last second, the policy is hedged before the fulfillment of its purpose. In this, Obama’s plan is not dissimilar from Obama himself — filled with obvious talent and undeniable appeal, sold with stunning rhetoric and grand hopes, but never quite delivering on the promises and potential.”

In the main, Klein’s critique is also about what he would like to see rather than about the realities of a campaign, about how great the plan could be – and by extension the candidate – if it just went a little further, was slightly more the extreme liberal’s dream. Lost in both Klein’s and Cohn’s analyses is an understanding of, ironically, Obama’s candidacy. In the past two months alone we have learned that Obama would add more troops in the Middle East, and that he would seek to maintain the status quo in Israel. The idea that he is some kind of left-oriented liberal is merely a figment of people’s imagination, what they want to see rather than what he has proclaimed himself to be. Undoubtedly, there are those who continue to presume that because he is African-American and speaks the language of the people (tinged with Lincolnisms) with such fluency, he must be a radical departure from everything this nation has seen before, but he isn’t (even though he is).

Obama has said over and over again that he is a “uniter,” that he seeks to bring the nation together and lead All of the people, not just those who vote for him. He isn’t out to bring down big business and restructure the political economy. Even before he introduced his plan in Iowa on Tuesday, Obama said, “Look, it’s perfectly understandable for a business to try and make a profit, and every American has the right to make their case to the people who represent us in Washington.”  Critics and detractors may read his health care plan as “cautious,” “dull,” even lacking in “audacity,” but we shouldn’t make the mistake of reading it as having missed its mark because it doesn’t.  Everything about Obama suggests his hybridity: His ethnic background; his life experiences; his religious conversion. To presume that his health care plan is merely a indication of his reticence or opaqueness, that all of his choices are reflections of the advisors he is surrounded by – as does Cohn – or that his plan merely borrows from others’ – as does Klein – robs Obama of the unique vision that he is trying to construct, one that reflects his American experience, and superimposes, yet again, our idea of who and what he is on top of what he actually says, which may be flawed enough on it own.