I watched the President’s speech on health care Wednesday. During it, I wondered to myself “How did we get to this place? Why is this even necessary?” Despite an improvement in public opinion regarding health care reform after the speech (and presumably a result of it), I still believe that the prospects for true health care reform are circling the drain (“true” meaning a public option, physician and hospital payment reform, significant measures at cost control, etc.). But why? In my opinion, it comes down to trust. A trust that was misplaced. A trust that was betrayed.
President Obama trusted Congress. In the opinion of some, he “overlearned” the lesson’s of President Clinton’s failure at achieving health care reform in the 90s. Instead of dictating a finished bill, he turned the process of actual policymaking – “legislating” – over to Congress, which is, according to our system, a “legislature.” He trusted them, including significant majorities of Democrats in both the House and the Senate, to take care of working out the messy details of policy, armed with their collective experience and the expertise of witnesses and staffers. He trusted them to look beyond narrow electoral advantage, to ignore armies of lobbyists and dumptruck loads of special interest money squeezing through every crack in campaign finance law, and to have a broader vision for themselves and their country than the next two to six years. He trusted them to think in terms of the interests of ordinary Americans, and forget partisanship, sectionalism, and personal aggrandizement. That trust was misplaced and betrayed.
President Obama trusted Republicans too. He did not order Congressional Democrats to pass health care reform without consulting Democrats, or by using parliamentary procedure to make it happen without the need for Republican votes. He trusted that the Republicans would recognize the way the wind was blowing, after having been handed significant defeats at nearly every electoral level. He trusted them to engage in constructively building a solution for America’s health care system, and in particular, a solution that would actually solve the problems of access, cost, and quality, instead of solving their credibility and loyalty problems with a couple hundred deranged constituents back home. He trusted them to be true to their political principles, but also to be true to the charge they were given to seek the common welfare of Americans. In short, he trusted them to act like adults. That trust was misplaced and betrayed.
Finally, President Obama trusted the American people. He trusted them to be intelligent consumers of information– to not believe every thing that they saw on the TV, in their e-mail, or on a blog post. He trusted them to not make decisions based on mere rumor and innuendo. He trusted them to be broad-minded and open-hearted, to be concerned about the welfare of their fellow Americans as much as they would be concerned about the welfare of their siblings or cousins. He trusted them to not give in to cheap forms of public discourse and to not participate in a degradation of the national political atmosphere. That trust was also misplaced and betrayed.
This trust was lightly given, handed over despite no previous evidence of any of its recipients being trustworthy. I am not one generally disgusted by legislative politics (the “sausage-making”), but I am beginning to think differently. I see little reason to believe that Congress as a whole, despite the good intentions of a significant plurality of its members, to make necessary changes on the big issues in ways that would significantly benefit large portions of the American populace. And the American people? When they happen to get something right (electing Obama), it is practically a matter of dumb luck. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, President Obama “thought we could be decent men in an indecent time.” I remain unconvinced.