“The President’s Speech”
September 10, 2009, 4:00am

By Robert L. Borosage

The President gives a great speech. He offers reason against hysteria. He summons us to our better angels. He challenges politicians and Americans to do “great things,” because that is “who we are.” He claims the center by defining himself against left and right, even as he acknowledges merit in both.

But he faces an embittered and disloyal Republican opposition. They scorn his speech as he gives it. They are intent on breaking the administration, not addressing a national crisis. The president offered preemptive concessions on tort reform, while inviting Republicans to join an adult conversation, putting aside the lies and calumnies that have so distorted the debate, like “death panels” and “government takeover of health care.” He was answered immediately by anonymous Republican jeering from the floor, and formally by Rep. Charles Boustany, a medical doctor before coming to Congress, delivering the official Republican response by contrasting Republican “common sense” proposals with Obama’s “government takeover of health care.” Once more the president offers his hand; once more it is spit upon.

The president paid tribute to progressive pressure by sustaining his oft stated position on the public option — that it offered Americans an important choice and held insurance companies accountable, and that he was open to other ways to achieve that end. But his concessions went to the conservatives in the Democratic Party. Senator Max Baucus, who has done more to weaken and impede reform than any other Democrat, was probably the big winner in the speech. Gone were the top end tax increases that House progressives would use to help pay for health care. Instead the President bowed towards the Baucus notion of taxing insurance companies for Cadillac health care plans — which will raise questions among working and middle class people as to whether they will bear the burden. He embraced Bush’s proposal to test out tort reform programs in different states, even though he knows that states like Texas that have imposed strict tort reforms show no evidence of cost savings. He stood for a very circumscribed public insurance choice, but said he was still open to ersatz ideas like the Baucus coop fantasy. He will hope that his speech has calmed fears of seniors and recaptured independents with health care who will benefit from insurance reform. No mention was made of empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.

What now? The president is right it is time for action. Any reform must overcome entrenched Republican opposition. The president must turn to the negotiations that matter — those among the members of his own party, seeking to put together a plan that (1) works and that (2) can gain the votes necessary to pass. Democrats cannot afford to fail. But the plan, which will be done over entrenched Republican obstruction, must work. If there are mandates on individuals, there must be subsidies to make insurance affordable. With people mandated to get reform, there must be competition offered by a non-profit public insurance to help keep a lid on costs, and to keep insurance companies honest. The costs should be born by progressive taxes and elimination of expensive subsidies to insurance companies and drug companies. Republicans have shown again and again that they are willing to say anything, repeat any lie to make him fail. The only question is whether Democrats can unify in the hope of passing historic reform that works, and in the fear of failing to deliver once more.

This president deserves a better opposition both on the right — one willing to enter an adult conversation about how to solve the staggering challenges this country faces — and on the left, one willing to push him hard for fundamental reform, and pressure those in both parties standing in the way.

He is ill-served by the petty corruption and ideological venom of the right, and the docility of the left.

If we are going to be able to overcome the entrenched corporate interests and lobbies that dole out money to conservatives in both parties, we will need a much more independent and aggressive progressive mobilization.