“Failure Is Not An American Habit”

I’m going to quote at length a passage from President Obama’s speech in Green Bay this morning because it represents his closing pitch to Americans, and, unfortunately, most Americans won’t hear much, if any, of it, only what fits into a short segment on the nightly news or a snippet on radio or cable TV:

Back in 2008, when we talked about change, I told you, I wasn’t just talking about changing presidents, I wasn’t just talking about changing parties, I was talking about changing our politics. I ran because the voices of the American people, your voice, had been shut out of our democracy for way too long, by lobbyists and special interests, politicians who believe that compromise is somehow a dirty word.

By folks who would say anything to win office and do anything to stay there. 

The protectors of the status quo are a powerful force in Washington. And over the last four years, every time we’ve tried to make changes, they fought back with everything they’ve got. They’ve spent millions to stop us from reforming health care and Wall Street and student loans.

And their strategy from the start was to engineer pure gridlock in Congress, refusing to compromise on ideas that both Democrats and Republicans have supported in the past. And what they’re counting on now, Wisconsin, is that the American people will be so worn down by all the squabbling, so tired of all the dysfunction, that you’ll actually reward obstruction and put people back in charge who advocate the very policies that got us into this mess.

In other words, their bet is on cynicism.

But, Wisconsin, my bet is on you. My bet is on the decency and good sense of the American people. Because despite all the resistance, despite all the setbacks, we’ve won some great fights. And I’ve never lost sight of the vision we share. That you would have a voice, that there would be somebody at the table fighting every single day for middle-class Americans who work hard. 

You know, sometimes Republicans in Congress have worked with me to meet our goals, to cut taxes for small businesses and families like yours, to open new markets for American goods, or finally repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

And sometimes we’ve had big fights, fights that were worth having. 

Like when we forced the banks to stop overcharging for student loans and make college more affordable for millions. 

Like when we forced Wall Street to abide by the toughest rules since the 1930s. 

Like when we stopped insurance companies from discriminating against Americans with pre-existing conditions like cancer or diabetes, so that nobody in America goes bankrupt just because they get sick. 

I didn’t fight those fights for any partisan advantage. I’ve shown my willingness to work with anybody of any party to move this country forward. And if you want to break the gridlock in Congress, you’ll vote for leaders, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, who feel the same way. 

But if the price of peace in Washington is cutting deals that will kick students off financial aid, or get rid of funding for Planned Parenthood, or eliminate health care for millions on Medicaid who are poor or elderly or disabled, just to give a millionaire a tax cut, I’m not having it. 

That’s not a deal worth having. That’s not bipartisanship, that’s not change. That’s surrender to the same status quo that has hurt middle-class families for way too long. But I’m not ready to give up on that fight. I hope you aren’t either, Wisconsin. I hope you aren’t either.

See, the folks at the very top in this country don’t need another champion in Washington. They’ll always have a seat at the table. They’ll always have access and influence. The people who need a champion are the Americans whose letters I read late at night, the men and women I meet on the campaign trail every day.

The laid off furniture worker who’s retraining at the age of 55 for a career in biotechnology, she needs a champion. 

The small restaurant owner who needs a loan to expand after the bank turned him down, he needs a champion.

The cooks, the waiters, the cleaning staff, working overtime at a Vegas hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kid to college, they need a champion.

The auto worker who is back on the job, filled with pride and dignity because he’s building a great car, he needs a champion.

The young teacher, doing her best in an over-crowded classroom, with outdated textbooks, she needs a champion. 

All those kids in inner cities and small farm towns, in the valleys of Ohio, or rolling Virginia hills, or right here in Green Bay, kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors, engineers or entrepreneurs, diplomats, or even a president, they need a champion in Washington. They need a champion.

They need a champion because the future will never have as many lobbyists as the past, but it’s the dreams of those children that will be our saving grace. That’s why I need you, Wisconsin. To make sure their voices are heard, to make sure your voices are heard.

We’ve come too far to turn back now. We’ve come too far to let our hearts grow faint. Now’s the time to keep pushing forward. To educate all our kids, and train all our workers, to create new jobs and rebuild our infrastructure, to discover new sources of energy, to broaden opportunity to grow our middle class, to restore our democracy, and to make sure no matter who you are or where you came from or how you started out, you can work to achieve your American Dream.

You know, in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR reminded the country that “failure is not an American habit. And in the strength of great hope we must shoulder our common load.” That’s the strength we need today. That’s the hope I’m asking you to share. That’s the future in our sights. That’s why I’m asking for your vote.

I urge all of you to go here and read the complete text of the speech, given 80 years ago, from which the FDR quote above was taken. It is remarkable.

Roosevelt does a short survey of American economic history, including the Industrial Revolution, including a devastating critique of corporations, how they “threaten the economic freedom of individuals to earn a living,” how “we are steering a steady course towards economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”

He said the day of the “financial titan” was over, and the “day of enlightened administration has come,” an administration with the task of,

distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. 

Remarkable. Imagine if Barack Obama said that!

Or this:

As I see it, the task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights, an economic constitutional order. This is the common task of statesman and business man. It is the minimum requirement of more permanently safe order of things….

The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract . . . Under such a contract, rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct government . . .

Every man has a right to life, and this means that he also has a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right, but it may not be denied to him. We have no actual famine or dearth; our industrial and agricultural mechanism can produce enough to spare. Our government formal and informal, political and economic, owes to every one an avenue to possess himself a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs through his own work….

If, in accord with this principle, we must restrict the operations of the speculator, the manipulator, even the financier, I believe we must accept the restriction as needful not to hamper individualism but to protect it….

If Obama said those words, then Fox “News” commentators would undergo such ideological convulsions that all the drugs in Rush Limbaugh’s medicine chest wouldn’t be enough to calm them down.

Let’s Agree

Let’s stop subsidizing the wealthy. Stop crony capitalism. Stop corporate welfare. Means-test our entitlement programs.”

The above quote was not said by some wild- or starry-eyed liberal. It was said by the Buddha of budgetary knowledge on the right, Paul Ryan, on ABC’s This Week last Sunday. 

In the spirit of the New Year and New Beginnings, let us end this year with a note of agreement. I agree with Mr. Ryan that we should stop crony capitalism—the only kind there will ever be without adequate public attention—and stop corporate welfare—corporations are doing just fine, thank you—and we should means-test our entitlement programs—especially Medicare, which is, as Paul Ryan knows very well, the biggest driver of our long-term debt problem. 

And Paul Ryan also knows very well that the plan he advanced earlier this year—which nearly every Republican this side of the Asteroid Belt voted for—would end the system created in 1965, even if the name would live on. (No matter what Politifact says.) Let’s all at least agree on that. 

And let us agree that the current Medicare system, which took more than 50 years to bring into reality, should be preserved. After all, it was signed into law by a Texan, Lyndon Johnson, and was supported by almost half of the Republicans in Congress at the time. 

So sensitive are Americans to perceived government interference, that even the sainted FDR dared not force the issue of public health insurance—which he supported—before the enactment of his social security bill was assured in 1935. And despite Missourian Harry Truman’s efforts to get the job done—President Johnson would eventually credit “the man from Independence” for those efforts and make the 81-year-old fighter the program’s first enrollee— it took another generation before folks without means could rest a little easier knowing they had at least basic health insurance they could afford, when they were on the unprofitable side of life. 

And among those who could rest a little easier were my parents. My dad, who was 56 years old when Medicare was passed, worked all of his pre-heart attack life. My mom worked full-time at home and part-time at what she called the “dime store.” Were it not for Medicare, well, the alternative for them would have been and, for me, remains, unthinkable.  Let’s agree that, for them and millions of  people like them, access to affordable government health insurance made—and for now, still makes—America a better place in which to live.

Truman, in a special message to Congress in November of 1945—1945!—said there were “certain rights which ought to be assured to every American citizen.” One of them, he said, was “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” What a shame, more than 65 years later, we are fighting over The Affordable Care Act, which guarantees Americans, sick or well, rich or poor, the right to health insurance, or rather the right to purchase health insurance from profit-minded private insurers. It is, by no means, a fulfillment of the vision of liberals, old or new. But it ain’t nothing. 

And yet we fight. Let’s agree to stop fighting about something so necessary. 

Truman said: 

In the past, the benefits of modern medical science have not been enjoyed by our citizens with any degree of equality. Nor are they today. Nor will they be in the future—unless government is bold enough to do something about it. 

People with low or moderate incomes do not get the same medical attention as those with high incomes. The poor have more sickness, but they get less medical care. 

He didn’t must make that statement in 1945 without evidence to back it up. And he had plenty: 

The people of the United States received a shock when the medical examinations conducted by the Selective Service System revealed the widespread physical and mental incapacity among the young people of our nation… 

As of April of 1945, nearly 5,000,000 male registrants between the ages of 18 and 37 had been examined and classified as unfit for military service. The number of those rejected for military service was about 30 percent of all those examined. The percentage of rejection was lower in the younger age groups, and higher in the higher age groups, reaching as high as 49 percent for registrants between the ages of 34 and 37. 

Think about that. And think about the health of those back then who were in their forties and fifties and sixties and beyond. Truman, understanding that the child is father of the adult, said that it is “important to resolve now that no American child shall come to adult life with diseases or defects which can be prevented or corrected at an early age.” 

Let’s agree that health care involves inter-generational agreements. Old folks, let’s make sure the young are cared for, even if their parents are not rich. Young folks, let’s make sure the old are cared for, even if they lack wealth. All of us are either young or getting old. The Affordable Care Act is simply a part of these inter-generational agreements—without which any modern and civilized society cannot continue to be modern and civilized. It ought to be without controversy, or at least without animus. 

But it’s not. We have folks around the country, and folks in Congress, who are fighting for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act with a kind of religious zeal, as if to lose the battle would mean the end of a God-blessed America. There are even some radicals who would move us back to not only 1964, before Medicare, but to 1934, before Social Security. They would leave the non-rich at the mercy of charities or family and friends, of whatever means. 

But if we can’t finally agree, as Paul Ryan seemed to suggest last Sunday, that entitlements—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—are a permanent part of our social fabric and that in order to afford them we may need to, among other things, means-test them, then I’m not sure there is anything we can agree on as a civilized nation.

As Harry Truman said so long ago, our government needs to be “bold enough” to do something about inadequate health care in our country.  All he was really saying was we-the-people need to be bold enough.

Bold enough to agree.

President Obama Is Better Than This

During his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama’s sarcastic and condescending tone toward liberals was bad enough, but it appears he got some facts wrong and drew at least one wrong conclusion due to his peculiar pique.

As Dan Froomkin writes, Obama correctly made the point that the Social Security program did not come into existence in the form we have it today.  There were incremental changes along the way.  But Mr. Obama characterized the program’s beginning this way:

This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people.

I confess I didn’t catch this misstatement of the facts at the time.  The truth is that, as Froomkin puts it:

The Social Security Act, as first signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, paid retirement benefits to the primary worker — and not to their widows and orphans. It wasn’t until a 1939 change that the law added benefits for survivors and for the retiree’s spouse and children.

But the real serious mistake President Obama made was in discussing the public option debate during the health care fiasco:

So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Forget for a moment the tone of that comment.  And forget for a moment that the Congressional Budget Office concluded at the time that the public option plan might benefit “3 million to 4 million,” which means Mr. Obama missed the mark by a factor of two.

The greater problem seems to be in Mr. Obama’s failure to grasp not only why liberals were so adamant about the public option, but his failure to understand its potential effect beyond those who might have directly benefited from it. Froomkin explained it perfectly:

What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, “the provision,” as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.

Froomkin also pointed out a flaw in Mr. Obama’s “rhetorical structure”:

If he truly believes that good things start small, like Social Security did, then criticizing the public option for starting small isn’t logically consistent. And the tax cut he agreed to is hardly a half measure in the right direction; it’s a colossal collapse in the wrong direction.

President Obama is better than this.  Clearly, he is upset with liberals for not fully appreciating what he has done, and to some degree he has a point about that.  I have been critical of some on our side who have been too eager to criticize Obama for any misstep or for his dogmatic belief that part of a loaf is better than going hungry.  Health insurance, after all, is now a right in America.

But in the case of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and Obama’s tactical acceptance of supply-side doctrine, the President must understand that on this issue he is tampering with a fundamental principle of the Democratic Party.  And he should at least be as understanding of liberal opposition to what he’s doing as he always seems to be of the fierce, unrelenting, irrational, Republican opposition to nearly everything he has done.

Rather than scold liberals for their so-called “purity,” he should—night and day—publicly scold Republicans for theirs, which is doing much more damage to the non-wealthy part of the country than anything the most committed liberal could do by criticizing their leader.

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