Thursday, September 10, 2009

A few thoughts from Paris on President Barack Obama’s healthcare speech to Congress

Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, read the first lines of the article in today’s Le Monde concerning the speech on healthcare of the 44th president of the United States to a joint session of Congress last evening. The Guardian newspaper in England declared that the “president issues rousing speech to Congress and promises not to be deflected from universal healthcare plan.”

This was a moment I confess that I have waited for with some trepidation, to see whether or not President Obama, a politician who, as Candidate Obama, was able to inspire even your jaded author as few politicians ever had before, would deliver on his promise of providing affordable, comprehensive healthcare to all Americans. As I have noted on this blog before, the current healthcare system in the United States - if you can call such a patchwork of private insurance schemes absurdly tied to employment status a system - currently gobbles up 17 percent of the U.S. GDP, as opposed to the 11 percent of GDP used here in France, a system that is not gamed by insurance and pharmaceutical companies as our current mode of operation in the United States is, but nevertheless guarantees universal healthcare. The U.S. system, currently ranked 37th in the world, according to the World Health Organization, is corrupt, stupid, brutal, wasteful and as expensive as anything I've ever seen, yet it has powerful forces with an interest in protecting it. I know this not just from statistics but from my own experiences and the experiences of my family and friends. I myself have been ineligible for any type of affordable healthcare since I went freelance full-time in early 2006.

This being the case, and given the vile and sometimes violent eruptions at various town hall meetings across the United States over the month of August, it seemed a reasonable fear that Obama, like many before him, might have been simply outmaneuvered by the frothing craziness and bile of the well-organized and well-funded defenders of the status quo. This, mixed in with a brew of right-wing demagoguery and naked racism, has created a rather poisonous political atmosphere in my native country, where a party that has been in power for 20 of the last 28 years simply cannot seem to get used to being in the political opposition.

However, much to my, dare I say it, joy, President Obama delivered brilliantly, giving what was certainly his best speech since his famous address on race in Philadelphia in March 2008, and perhaps one of the best political speeches I have heard in American politics during my lifetime.

Speaking of an insurance exchange to be created to allow individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a hardship waiver for those individuals who still cannot afford coverage, Obama did not advocate for the single-payer system that I and many who voted for him would have hope for. Nevertheless, his proposal would seem to take a great deal of power out of the hands of insurance company bureaucrats and point towards strenuous government advocacy to create a more just and equitable system that could not help but make Americans’ lives better.

Obama spoke terrifyingly of an Illinois man who lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones the man hadn’t previously known about. The man subsequently died following delays in treatment. He also mentioned the case of a woman in Texas whose insurance company cancelled her policy as she was about to undergo a double mastectomy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. When she finally regained insurance, the cancer had more than doubled. As Obama said “no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the speech came towards the end, when Obama evoked the name of recently deceased democratic Senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy, referring to a letter than Kennedy had sent him to be read in the event of his death, and to Kennedy’s own long struggle to reform the health system in the United States:

Imagine what it must be like for those without insurance; what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent there is something that could make you better, but I just can't afford it....Large heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgement that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise...

...We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history's test.

Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.

After fearing for the month of August that Obama had lost control of the debate to the bitter fringe shouting that the sky was falling, THIS was once again the man we elected as president last fall. And once again, finally, it appears that we have a genuine advocate for the disenfranchised in the White House.

An additional note: At one point during Obama’s speech, when he asserted that the healthcare proposal now under consideration in Congress would not provide healthcare to undocumented immigrants in the United States (it doesn’t), Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, screamed “You’re lying” from the audience, a breach of decorum that I can never remember seeing before during a presidential address to both houses of congress.

Beyond the ignorance of Joe Wilson himself, who, judging from his performance, is little more than a repulsive piggish caricature of a good ‘ol boy, faced with Obama’s oratorical eloquence and sound political judgement, the Republican Party as a whole appears to be content to continue down a path of political irrelevance, defining itself as a regional, white, Christian party. It is a rather public political suicide that I think is unique in modern American history. Increasingly in the grip of a clutch of extremists, the GOP, a party that once gave us Abraham Lincoln, now behaves as a group of ill-mannered, uneducated spoiled children might.

If this is the best, most principled opposition to that Republicans can muster, I should think that Obama has little to worry about. And I hope the long struggle for national healthcare in the United States might at last be arriving at its defining moment.

1 comment:

Mira Kamdar said...

My husband put on Fox News after to gauge the reaction on the right. What was chilling were the television commercials Fox was hosting with testimonials from Canadians and Brits about how their lives were saved by U.S. healthcare after being denied care or having care delayed in their home country. "I am alive today because of U.S. healthcare" type of thing. I find it impossible to judge what the "average American" is thinking or makes of all this, even after a speech that, I agree, was brilliant. Common sense seems to have little purchase on the American imagination!