Don't Cry for Me, Single Option
The collapse of "the public option" last weekend gave rise to several days of intense media speculation about current White House strategies for health care reform. In effect, the Obama administration threw the option overboard — after claiming since last winter that it would be essential.
President Obama chose to jettison his avowed commitment to a public option that would compete with private health insurance. What followed, amid rancor and anger from liberal Democrats, was a classic presidential effort to backtrack and pretend that what had just happened didn't really happen.
But for the public option, the fluttering of a white flag over the White House is almost certain to be fatal, no matter how much Obama tries to lower it. The message was instantly conveyed and instantly received across Washington's political spectrum: The president won't go to the mat for a public option after all.
In the midst of a tough battle for passage of a major bill, such a message from the Oval Office is deadly.
It didn't have to be this way.
When President Lyndon Johnson called for a new government program to guarantee health care for the elderly, a fierce outcry against "socialized medicine" echoed from coast to coast. The Rush Limbaughs and George Wills of the day went nuts. But Johnson was able to sign Medicare into law in 1965 — after he refused to waver.
Now, the president is wavering. And no spoonfuls of rhetorical sugar will help this bitter medicine go down.
At its best, "the public option" was no great shakes. Under the plan, private insurance companies would continue to dominate health care while extracting huge profits. Yet some hoped that the public option might open the door to truly universal health care across the country.
But last weekend, Obama dubbed the public option "just one sliver" of potential health care reform.
The retreat jarred activists who've been working hard for meaningful health care reform. Individual political figures and groups that have been steadfast Obama loyalists for well over a year — such as former Gov. Howard Dean and the Democracy For America organization — were faced with the choice of piping down or pushing back.
What followed was a binge of media stories and commentaries revolving around the question of whether the public option was really dead. Meanwhile, the guy who killed it was working behind the scenes to wipe off as many presidential fingerprints as possible.
Close to 50 million Americans have no health insurance. And those of us who do have coverage — on paper — are apt to discover gaping holes in our insurance when we need it most. That's the profit-driven system of health care.
Even a "robust" public option would fall far short of guaranteeing health care for all. As a matter of principle as well as practicality, the ideal of securing health care as a human right will require a single-payer system, also known as Medicare for all.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a statement that became a kind of logo on his literature and website: "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about change in Washington. ... I'm asking you to believe in yours."
Democracy is not about automatic faith in any leader. At the same time, news media should inform and encourage wide-ranging debate — nurturing the inclinations of the public to speak up and participate in a democratic process.
Norman Solomon is the author of the book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," which has been made into a documentary film. For information, go to: www.normansolomon.com.
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