The Futility Monster

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Posts Tagged ‘US healthcare’

Healthcare Reform Passes; Hell Freezes Over

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 27, 2010 @ 09:19

What's more scary: that some Americans actually believed this shit, or that the people behind this campaign were so cynical enough to dream it up?

I couldn’t let my final post of the week go by without making some comment on the success of the US Congress to, finally, pass a healthcare reform bill. A bill that was lauded as a “big fucking deal” by Vice President Joe Biden must have something going for it.

And it does. It makes a delicate step in the right direction for improving the lives of millions of Americans. It’s nowhere near where they need to be, but it will bring America closer to the rest of the civilized world in ensuring that thousands of people do not continue to die because they have no access to healthcare.

But you know what it is most of all? It, combined with recent international manoeuvres by Obama regarding Israel and the West Bank, and the gentle nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia, show that something is occurin’ once more in America. That something is our old friend, missing for almost a year.

Change.

I have been on a big downer about Obama during this healthcare fiasco. His handling of the situation over the last year has been poor at best. Weak. Wishy washy. Unclear about what he actually wants to achieve. Appearing to dither. Aloof.

That is, until the last few weeks, when he realised that it was time to get directly involved in the campaign, put his entire presidency on the line, no matter what the cost.

Really, we all knew there would be no “cost” to him. We all knew that his poll ratings were flagging because of the failure to deliver during this spectacularly long and boring healthcare debacle.

No sooner did the bill pass Obama’s ratings took a significant lift. Approval and favorability up by between 5 and 10% depending on the pollster. It seems the American people actually like success, and want change after all.

All of this is in spite of the fact that a plurality still disapprove of “the healthcare bill”. Of course, whenever a pollster has broken down the bill into parts, asking their opinion on the things within it, approval of it skyrockets. Just goes to show that Obama’s team have been extremely poor at explaining exactly what it is they’re doing, and failing to define their enemies as roadblocks to delivering all of these goodies.

But this event, hopefully, will be the Duh! moment of the year to the Obama administration.What they think of as risks are actually nothing of the sort. The public are easily misled by the media, especially one so eager to deliver “balance” by countering a Democratic opinion with a rabid Tea Party one, even if only one of those “opinions” actually has a basis in reality. Hint: it’s not usually the latter.

Obama should take a moment to enjoy this success, and use it to drive a hunger for more. It’s time for him to exploit his platform to deliver another major piece of reform before November (immigration, please!), for the simple reason that he will never again get a Congress this far in his favour.

Make hay while the sun shines, and all that.

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One-Term Obama?

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 13, 2010 @ 09:41

OK, maybe our expectations were a little too high...

It being a fine Saturday, what better excuse is needed for forgetting about our politics and thinking about politics in America again. Hey, it’s been a while!

The big hooha at the moment in the States surrounds Obama’s apparent further drop in support. Approval ratings are tanking, with them now being some way below the 50% mark, with the latest figure being 46%. Panic buttons are being hit across the Democratic party. Republicans holler with delight. Oh, those early days when this approval was sky high at 69% seem so far away now.

We’re being told that the reason is simple. Americans don’t want Obama’s “socialist” take over of everything, from healthcare to the economy.

Time for a reality check. Obama was elected on the biggest wave of hope and optimism for change America has seen in decades. Obama’s program was by no means radical, being firmly rooted in the centre of American politics (centre-left doesn’t really exist as a concept over there). He looked good, he sounded great. The Americans gave him a thumping mandate, both personally and to his party.

14 months later – yes, that’s all it’s been – Obama’s agenda has stalled. Early small victories came to a crashing halt when the Republicans happened to stumble upon the strategy that has delivered so much success. Do nothing. Stop everything. Use every parliamentary trick in the book to ensure that Obama fails.

Obama has some responsibility for letting his useless Congressional leadership take care of the specifics. They have wasted the biggest opportunity in a generation to use full control of the legislature, having been held to ransom by a handful of truly awful Senators. Obama might have got a bit more involved at an earlier point. And Obama’s insistence on trying to get “bipartisan” legislation is a total waste of time, when the Republicans have no desire to take part.

And why would they? They’re doing awfully well out of Democratic failure to deliver. And now, because Democrats have no spine, the Republicans are able to claim that it’s all the Democrats fault for their internal squabbling and inability to govern. Republicans never needed 60 votes, after all.

To me, the narrative behind the approval ratings failure is simple. The American people wanted change. The American people have not seen any. Approval ratings don’t equate to masses Democrats suddenly wanting to vote Republican. No. It means Democrats lose interest. Republicans get fired up as the feel the tide turning. Independents feel let down by one side and start to consider whether maybe the other side could do a better job after all.

Meanwhile, the approval ratings continue to slide, as the nation gets bored to death by talk talk talk about healthcare reform, with still no delivery or end in sight.

But there was something Obama said last year that he ought to come back to…

President Barack Obama is “quite comfortable” with the prospect of being a one-term president in order to address the issues he is concerned about, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.

If I’m wrong, and greater access to affordable healthcare really is not what the American people want, then Obama probably will be a one-term President.

But I’m willing to bet that if Obama can finally get round to strong arming enough of his errant Congressional party into supporting his reforms, his plans will steadily gather support when the Democrats can start to wheel out the laundry list of things the healthcare package improves for Americans.

The attitude of “I’m going to do what I think is right, because I have no electoral fears” may be the only way out of this mess. So what if you’re a one-term President but massively increased access to healthcare, cut the budget deficit and started the ball rolling on curbing the worst excesses of the insurance companies.

Obama must regain that confidence in his messaging that he displayed during the campaign.

Change takes time. Change takes guts. Change involves a mammoth battle with the vested corporate and selfish interests.

But I’m starting to doubt if Obama has the bottle to do it.

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Back In The US(S)A

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 22, 2009 @ 10:33

Death panels? Sounds like something you get from IKEA...

Because British politics is boring me again – I’ll believe the leaders debate when I see it – it’s time to look at what’s going on in the States…

Recent developments have resulted in the Senate’s leadership managing to give just enough bribes and throw enough of the progressive parts of the legislation into the fire to assure themselves of passage. Having greased the wheels with pork fat, the Democrats now have the 60 votes necessary to break the endless Republican filibuster.

This is good news. While the legislation is an utter dog’s breakfast, it is a step in the right direction. The legislative sausage-making process usually highlights the extreme division between incrementalists and revolutionists. I generally count myself in the latter camp – incremental change is invariably used as an excuse to never reach the goal – but as far as the USA is concerned, there is no such thing as revolution in legislative terms.

The main reason being, of course, the nature of the US Constitution. A constitution I’m a big fan of, except for the obvious bits us lefties hate. Damn you, Second Amendment!

The whole point of the American system is to slow change to an utterly glacial level. Some argue the most radical reforms have come as a result of judicial decisions, and that would be fair comment. And in recent years, the pace has slowed even further due to the extreme lengths Republicans in the minority in the Senate are using the power of the filibuster. The filibuster, which is of debatable constitutionality, and is now the normal order of business, even though that was never its intended purpose.

So getting anything through Congress, in the face of Republican opposition which has sullied the level of the debate to new lows: socialism, death panels, enormous deficits (despite them being created by Bush), is a major achievement. A Republican opposition which chose from the outset to do its best to destroy the healthcare reform agenda rather than engage in a debate the country desperately needs to have.

The worry to liberals like me, however, is that this is probably as good as it’s going to get. And this is why Obama should have engaged harder in this process. He has to appreciate that this is very likely to be his high water mark in terms of the support he’s going to get from Congress. It’s all downhill from here, and by the end of his second term (let’s stay hopeful) he’ll very likely be dealing with a Republican Congress, more right-wing than ever.

What next, then? Well, the hope of progressives has always been that the Senate and the House would come to a compromise between their bills, one very centrist, the other a bit more radical, though still very mild. That isn’t going to happen. The Senate will not accept more than a minor tinker to their version. And the Progressive caucus in the House will give up their pretend opposition to more gifts to the insurance industry, as they always do.

So America will get some healthcare reform. This is very good progress. But there will be no appetite for reopening the issue any time soon.

And meanwhile, other issues will return. Climate change. More stimulus. Immigration reform. More opportunities for the Senate to delay and destroy the only chance America has for genuine reform in the next decade.

Methinks Obama really missed the boat here…

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In Awe of Keith Olbermann

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 27, 2009 @ 07:50

The man in action; it's all about the Special Comment...

The man in action; it's all about the Special Comment...

In case it wasn’t already obvious, one of the things I’m interested in is the power of oratory. As everyone knows, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, many of Obama’s speeches are not filled with anything particularly revolutionary, but his style of delivery, the timbre of his voice, the song-like qualities he brings to the delivery, make him all the more pleasing on the ear.

But there is one man whose speaking-style is more akin to an Alan Partridge sports journalist type. And yet, when he’s on fire, I could listen to him all day…

His name is Keith Olbermann. British politicos may not have heard of him, but Americans will know exactly who I’m talking about. He is the presenter of Countdown on MSNBC. His politics are distinctively liberal: but with plenty of fire in his belly. It’s often been commented that the only good shock-jocks are on the right, but in recent years pundits like Olbermann, Franken (before he became a Senator!) and Rachel Maddow have turned that preconception on its head.

And they owe it all to the trail-blazer, and very funny, Jon Stewart.

These people are razor sharp, quick witted and coherent. Their powers of reasoning are often brilliant…

But there’s just something about Olbermann that puts him ahead of the pile. About a week or so, he demonstrated his brilliance in a 20 minute “Special Comment” on the topic of US healthcare reform. If you have time to spare, watch this from start to finish – but even a couple of minutes will show you what I mean…

What is it that makes him so good? Like I said, his speaking voice and style is nothing particularly new. Indeed, he might even be compared to Gordon Brown in the speed and knockout nature of the delivery. Brown’s speeches tend to consist of pummelling you with wave after wave of statistics and soundbites – a style which makes him come over as appearing bold, confident and self-assured.  Olbermann is the same.

But the true shining quality of Olbermann is in the force of his argument. While Brown argues in prose, Olbermann argues in poetry.

Olbermann is the master of all those techniques that we once all listened to in GCSE English and got bored stiff of… and then quickly forgot once the exam was over.

Well, I was supposed to forget them but I didn’t.

Olbermann uses imagery, metaphors, hyperbole, alliteration, rhyming, rhetorical devices, rhythm and perfectly placed pauses for effect, He tears into his opponents by going for the most emotional response possible, and brings in concepts from other arguments and philosophers by referencing them to build up his case.

But the greatest asset is his ability to bring it all together to make it feel more like a poem or a song than a thesis. It feels like the paragraphs are short and direct, each one building towards a conclusion that you actually enjoy heading towards. The sentences are easy to digest and break down. There are no Charles Kennedy-esque 100 word sentences using colons, semi-colons, ellipses, commas, hyphens… filled with digressions and asides.

And the final thing that I like so much about him, the thing that makes him such a joy to listen to is the quality of his diction. Every single consonant, every single vowel, every speech-like noise is perfectly enunciated. At no point is there ever any doubt about what he has said. His voice has depth, richness and clarity. No annoying quirks of accent or anything else to catch the ear. Just unambiguous confidence and erudition.

Do we have anyone comparable over here? Am I wrong in thinking that we have a real paucity of public speakers in this country

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Grow Some Balls, Obama

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 17, 2009 @ 22:55

Wanted: one of these in order to start political revolution...

Wanted: one of these in order to start political revolution...

Time for a little digression into American politics…

For those of us who’ve been following the US healthcare reform debacle, things appear to be coming to a head. The House of Representatives is probably going to insist on a very strong set of reforms, with serious involvement for the public sector. Meanwhile, if the Senate had their way, they’d dump a load of old horseshit on Obama’s desk, a steaming bow-tied turd which might make Rahm Emanuel happy but no one else…

The problem appears to be that the Senate, as usual, is utterly rudderless. Some of this is in their inherent constitutional nature. Too many chiefs… there are so few Senators that almost every member of the majority party has some senior role, chairmanship of a (sub)committee. Meanwhile, there are a gaggle of Republican Senators whom the Democrats appear to spend all their time trying to entice into bed with them. All because the Democrats don’t have the guts to pass anything on their own because they don’t want to take all the blame if it goes wrong.

It’s very unappetising, and a terrible waste of the potential power they ought to be wielding with such dominance of the Executive and Legislative branches; an opportunity that Obama may never enjoy again.

But in truth, it’s classic Obama. Ever the pragmatist, always looking for another way of trying to convince the nation that he is the uniter. Showing us that he does things differently. Wanting to further the pretence that he is ushering in an era of post-partisan politics.

It ain’t happening. How much longer is he going to dance to the tune of the Republican party? A party who clearly have no intention of negotiating anything in good faith. A party that have spent their entire time doing everything they can to undermine him. A party that has no qualms about utter, bare-faced lies about “death panels” and hilarious hyperbole about the socialist era washing across from sea to shining sea.

So why is Obama prepared to continue negotiating, and perpetuating a lie that he needs to, with the “Grand” Old Party? There’s something very wrong about this Democratic notion that somehow, in order to legislate, they need to achieve supermajorities when the Republicans didn’t. Are they trying to hold some sort of moral high ground? Maybe.

But, sadly, such a position is not going to solve the shocking healthcare crisis America suffers from. It’s not going to be any good if healthcare reform fails and President Obama says:

Well, we nearly did it. But, despite having large public support, and having a supermajority of 60 Democrats in the Senate… oh and it being a major part of my mandate in the 2008 election… well, we just couldn’t quite do it.

I thought Obama was all about achieving the unachievable. Of reaching for the dream when all hope seems lost.

Suddenly, when it comes to riding roughshod over the vested interests of a handful of greedy Senators, he seems to have hit a brick wall, unable to expose them to the cruel light of public scrutiny, blaming them for their closeness to the vested special interests and being such a cosy little members club. Perhaps he didn’t spend long enough in the Senate to realise how it works: they’re all in there to feather their own nests.

If Obama suddenly hung out some of these Senators – enjoying their moment in the sun to absorb some extra financial contributions from the healthcare industry – out to dry, I suspect things would start moving again.

Obama needs to start throwing his weight around more in public. He needs to start exerting the moral authority of his office to achieve his agenda. He cannot sit back and hope the Congress produces the legislation he wants. He has the rhetorical ability to lead. He won the Presidential election, for goodness sake.

FDR did it. LBJ did it.

Times are so tough in America that they need the same kind of mentality from their President in order to get things done.

Otherwise, in one or three years time, Obama will have a Republican Congress to deal with.

And do you think they’ll be in any mood for “bipartisanship”?

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Book Review: The Audacity of Hope

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 22, 2009 @ 06:30

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

I’ve been meaning to share some of my thoughts on my completion of Barack Obama’s second treatise for a while now but never seem to find the time to do it. However, a trip to Bangor to do some Lib Dem canvassing tomorrow means this post was prepared a little earlier for publication today. Oh, how I love WordPress!

The Audacity of Hope is an impressive read. Obama’s mastery of the spoken word is legendary, but that doesn’t necessarily translate so easily into print. The delivery of Obama’s speeches is as much responsible for his talent as the content of them.

In written form, you have no chance of using pauses for effect and dramatic intonation. You’ve gotta deliver the goods in a completely different way: with cogent, well-structured argument that builds up to its thesis.

Obama seems to be pretty decent at this too. The book is a measured approach to what Obama plans to do during his term(s?) of office. To say it is pragmatic would be an understatement. This book has convinced me that Obama is no visionary, like FDR. He has his dreams, but he doesn’t appear to be able to follow them through because of his (paraphrased) continual refrain of “I see your point”. It gets somewhat exhausting the deeper you go into the tome.

Many times in the book Obama insists that both sides have got the solution to a problem wrong. This is no more so than when he talks about race – an area in which his writing is particularly compelling. He argues that the left making excuses for black people means that they don’t take personal responsibility seriously. Meanwhile, the right’s arguments that they deserve no special treatment doesn’t appreciate the pain brought about by decades of repression.

Yet Obama manages to square the circle in his response, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. His solution to most things appears to be to tell both left and right that they’re wrong reminds me of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Our old friend, The Third Way.

It works to a limited extent. It gets you elected. It keeps people happy for a while. But in the end, when it comes to conviction, it can be a huge drawback. Perhaps this is why he is missing the huge opportunity to push forward with healthcare reform. He tried to make out that he would be a “healing” President, contrary to the way George W. Bush drove everything and anything through Congress.

Consequently, he is terribly afraid of doing the same.

But in the case of healthcare, he’s missing a trick. The public are behind him. He has to be brave enough to take upon the mantle of the destroyer of special interests. He claims he is prepared to take them on in this book; indeed he insists that they are one of the reasons why America is in trouble. But I’ve yet to see him really do it.

I think this natural caution is stopping him from becoming a seriously great President.

While the book is sensible and middle of the road, tackling defence, terrorism, partisan bickering, religion and family in rational, logical ways, his approaches and solutions are lacking. By that I mean that he underestimates his own power of persuasion.

Instead of trying to be centrist and “bi-partisan” by pandering to his opposition for no reason other than keeping them sweet, I believe he could very easily forge a consensus around his true beliefs by ratcheting up the rhetoric. It is equally “bi-partisan” if you stick firmly to your guns and win people to your side. On healthcare, if he could only do that, rather than trade away bits of the necessary reform to buy off corporate lobbyists and corrupt Senators, he would achieve his vision; rather than only get bits of it.

Better still, he would actually deliver something that works. Taking ideas from left and right, just because that’s the nice and friendly thing to do, and adding them up into one package doesn’t make a neat centrist plan that will succeed. It makes a hotch-potch of contradictions that will be exploited and ignored.

This is the dangerous ground he is wading into. He almost did it with the stimulus – which is working – to buy votes in the Senate that he didn’t need. Throughout the book though he is hyper-obsessed with delivering things without the usual partisan battle. Like he has a fetish for seeing the Senate vote count read 70+ instead of the 50 + Joe Biden that will do equally well.

Face up to it, Barack. Politics is about the battle. That’s partly why we play it. That’s why the Republicans want to fight with you at every turn. That is democracy, and the way it has always been done. Even in consensual countries; they still have elections after all! You’re right to say we can work together if our opinions are similarly aligned. But you will get no extra credit for working with crazy, right-wing nutters who think you weren’t even born in the country. Doing so will only water down what you really want, and deliver none of that so-called “change” that you desperately want to bring.

In the book, he seems to believe that he will be able to overcome these decades of partisan hackery. It’s not going to happen. Instead, he needs to show more courage in his beliefs. More faith that he, himself, does have the right answers.

Because that’s the real message that comes across. People shouldn’t go into politics unless they think they have a solution. That they have ideas and a strategy to deploy it. Instead, Obama comes across as not believing he has a way forward – but that he will find it by working with everyone.

It’s a noble attitude, admitting that you don’t have the solution to all of life’s problems. And none of us do. But, for those of us in politics, our fundamental beliefs should give us a steer on almost every issue, no matter what.

Obama doesn’t seem to have that conviction. At least, it doesn’t come across in his writing. His only faith is that the spirit of the American people is strong enough to find a way out of the hole they’re in. As if he can delegate enough power to let everyone else do the reforming for him. A misguided belief, too, that when people work together they can all find the answers that the country desperately needs.

In other words, it’s all the usual optimism and hope that “yes, we can”. But not enough meat.

Then again, if it was full of turgid policy details, I imagine it wouldn’t have been all that exciting a read.

Instead, it flowed well, was enjoyable, and it was uplifting. I really did believe that his brand of change is worth buying into. As a slick marketing document for his presidential candidacy, it is superb. And, as we’ve seen, it did the job.

But, as soon as I put my politico hat back on, I realised I still wasn’t quite sure exactly what it is he wants to sell me. What the implications of his agenda will be.

Fortunately, we have been able to see him get elected, so we can match him up against his word.

So far, it’s not all too good.

Perhaps, like Tony Blair though, he will learn to back his conviction more and more as the years go by.

Just as long as they don’t lead us into Iraq again…

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Trouble In America

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 1, 2009 @ 17:21

ushealthcareIf there’s one thing I don’t understand about some Americans, it is their apparent desire to see the continuation of a healthcare system that costs more per capita than any other country in the world and delivers benefits only to the privileged few who can afford it.

They will defend their position as an insistence on the operation of a free market. Whatever gave them the crazy idea that a basic right to life before death for all citizens, not just the lucky ones, is something that should be left to the unfettered and frequently unfair powers of supply and demand is something that continues to baffle me.

To many of us on the left, we are looking, first and foremost, for a certain equality of outcome. It is my belief that people cannot be free and live their lives to the full if they are denied a) a good healthcare system; and b) a decent education. It is not possible to achieve your dreams in the modern era unless you have a free and equal access to these two things. Hence why the state ought to be the sole provider of these two facilities.

America: land of the free, however, would have many of its citizens believe that, while they really can achieve whatever they want through the American Dream, God help them if they become ill or stumble along the way. Because there’s no one there to help them. No basic safety net which will catch them if they fall and give them a help back on their feet.

No. They can just, in the immortal words of Tom Petty, keep Free Fallin’.

Maybe it’s better that we don’t understand their motives. After all, that would imply we’re many steps removed from this rather strange way of thinking. It might also suggest that we’re not quite so in hock to the pharmaceutical and health insurance lobbies that seem to dominate the American Congress, despite the fact that support for US healthcare reform, including a basic level of public sector provision, is quite significant.

Then again, if 72% of Americans support a “public option” perhaps there is some hope. It definitely seems that at least one part of the Congress, the House of Representatives, is more in tune with the public, and has at least a more decent idea of what level humanity should not sink below. But the House always has been the more populist side of the Congress.

It’s those old timers in the Senate that are going to be the big players in all this. And then that gets wrapped up in the old horse-trading of “I will only back this if you build a new… in my state”.  Which reduces what should be a goal worthy of its own celebration and passage without the hindrance of the pork-barrel and the logrolling to yet another grubby bit of politicking.

But if Obama can do this, twisting the necessary arms and sweetening the pill, and deliver a genuine public healthcare system in the process, maybe it’ll have to be a price worth paying.

Of course, such a system will far from resemble what we have here in the UK. After all, Americans will still have to pay for their public option, rather than fund it through general taxation.

But it is a step in the right direction, and will hopefully reduce the scandalous 65 million people who don’t have any health coverage at all. Talk about gambling with your life.

Watch this space, I guess.

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