Dealing with Inconvenient Myths about Health Care

22 08 2009

In his weekly address, President Barack Obama said while he is glad to see “a vigorous debate about health insurance reform” he is expressed frustration about it being “dominated by willful misrepresentations and outright distortions, spread by the very folks who would benefit the most by keeping things exactly as they are.”

He cited “some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country” such as generous health coverage for undocumented workers, mandated payment for abortions, and the implementation of so-called death panels. None of which are actually in the bill.

This is not the first time the president felt the need to counter some of these myths. In his August 8th weekly address, Obama said criticized the spreading of “outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care. That’s simply not true.”

At an August 11th New Hampshire town hall gathering on health care the president also said, “The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for “death panels” that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore.”

If the president of the United States has to push back on these falsehoods so many times to get his message out one wonders if he might benefit from a different approach. I realize President Obama sees himself as a reconciler of sorts and a healer, a latter day Abraham Lincoln if you will.

“There are always those who oppose it, and those who use fear to block change,” he noted in his weekly address. “But what has always distinguished America is that when all the arguments have been heard, and all the concerns have been voiced, and the time comes to do what must be done, we rise above our differences, grasp each others’ hands, and march forward as one nation and one people, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us Americans.”

But since the opposition is not looking for harmony, isn’t interested in civility, and won’t be satisfied with merely being listened to, perhaps he needs to deal with folks in the same way Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank confronted a LaRouche supporter named Rachel Brown at one of his own town halls this week. Brown specifically said was like Adolf Hilter’s T4 policy in Nazi Germany where people who were deemed incurably ill because of a chronic aliment or a disability or mentally disturbed or otherwise considered undesirable to national socialists was somehow the same thing as a provision in one of the health care bills, H.R. 3200, regarding end of life care, i.e. the infamous dealth panels.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked by the press and other experts.  Read the WaPo’s editorial on this issue for more detail on this distortion.

Rep. Frank’s said to Brown, who managed to compare Obama to Hitler at a recent town hall meeting, “It is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated.” He also added “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table, I have no interest in doing it.”

And at one point, Rep. Frank even rhetorically asked the LaRouche supporter “what planet do you live on?” As you may or may not know, the LaRouche group is a bunch of fringe lefties with socialist leanings with a peculiar penchant for conspiratorial thinking.

Watch the video:

Now I understand President Obama is under a different kind of pressure than Representative Frank has to contend with. Obama is a first year president trying not to fail and constantly mindful of his 2012 reelection bid. Frank, on the other hand, has a very secure Congressional seat, which he has held since 1981.

Whereas the president is still wrestling with how to be a principled uniter as he desperately tries to avoid alienating potential voters lest he himself be accused of being grossly intolerant and elitist, Frank often speaks his mind with little concern about who feigns offense. I understand that.

But at some point, the president has to be a lot more forceful in his condemnation of these baseless attacks otherwise they will continue to gain traction as the negotiations over the various bill become more involved. And the more that happens the easeir it will be for Republicans and conservative Democrats in the House and the Senate to push back against the president.


Can’t Begrudge Him

26 07 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the President’s more tempered remarks on Friday afteroon:

I really can’t begrudge him–his priority is health-care. Me, on the other hand, I’m pretty exhausted. What follows is the raw. Not much logic. Just some thoughts on how it feels.

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.

I agree.

Obama Tries to Quell Criticism of Gates Arrest

25 07 2009

President Barack Obama attempted to quell criticism of his remarks concerning the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry “Skip” Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force during a cameo appearance at a White House press briefing on Friday. The president expressed regret that “my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy.” He also said he phoned Sgt. Crowley to apologize for conveying the false impression that he intended to malign him and his department.

At his press conference on Wednesday he said “that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they [sic] were in their own home.”

Seeing how his words of condemnation inadvertently led to much of the inane fodder in the blogosphere, talk radio, and cable television chatter and consequently distracting the public from his broader legislative agenda, he urged us to step “back for a moment,”  recognize that “these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts,”  but “be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”

He also said he invited Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for a beer as a gesture of good will and hopes of reconciling differences and putting this controversy to rest.

His comments were meant to be conciliatory and to prevent the controversy over his initial set of remarks from competing with his message of the urgency of passing a health care reform bill through a slow moving Congress. On August 7th, the Congress breaks for a month long recess, and the White House is determined to keep the pressure on lawmakers to continue to work on the bill even during the break if need be. I could see how some of his advisers may think wading into racial politics at this juncture would not be helpful.

By the same token, the president attempt to rein back his statements were not helpful in enriching our already impoverished discussion of racial justice. Whether he knew it or not, the president’s remarks on Friday gave us the impression that the gray haired professor who walks with a cane is just a fault for his own arrest in his own home even if he produced an ID showing as the imposing and armed police officer is for cuffing him, since its all one big misunderstanding.

To imply there is some kind of moral equivalency here given the power relationship is wrong. Even if Professor Gates was belligerent is not clear that he was wanted to fight, threaten, initiate violent behavior, or was a danger to public safety or became annoyance, any one of which would have justified the arrest for disorderly conduct under Massachusetts law. In this instance, a mere heated exchange eventuated in a mug shot.

The president could have at least reaffirmed his statement on Wednesday that racial profiling remains a national problem and that something should be done about it.  For starters, we could pass the End Racial Profiling Act, which would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice. ERPA has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Instead, we are told that tempers flared unnecessarily on both sides and that we should all calm down and have a brewski. I doubt that the next person of color who gets pulled over in the Boston area will derive much solace from that recommendation.

President Obama called this a “teachable moment” for all us but that presumes that someone has to do the teaching or at least lead the discussion. Many people, perhaps unjustifiably, expected our first black president to do just that, but it seems he really does not appetite for it and quite frankly is rather busy with salvaging two failed wars he inherited from his predecessor in addition to trying to capture terrorists, reforming our financial regulatory system, stimulate job creation, overhauling our education system and, of course, passing a health care reform bill.

Political observers have wondered whether or not President Obama’s ascendancy not only means that we live in a post-racist America, but also if we need an activist class of black leaders anymore. Some have provocatively asked if Obama signifies the “End of Black Politics?” But the President Obama needs a counterweight on these issues, someone to contrast his own views with on racial justice issues and who can forcefully communicate the concerns of black America to everyone else. The president still has to worry about managing the perception that he’s inclined to favor some groups over others.

Of course, scores of black intellectuals and civic leaders have commented on the Gates affair, but no one with the kind of stature necessary to become President Obama’s gadfly on racial issues writ large in the same way President Lydon B. Johnson had to contend with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 60’s.

Even the most gifted and talented among us need to be pushed in the right direction to realize their potential.

Check out the president’s remarks on Friday here:

Obama on Affirmative Action

10 07 2009

In a recent Associated Press interview, President Obama gave a disappointingly weak answer to a question on affirmative action that I fear the opposition will have no problem exploiting in the future.

Instead of seeing Affirmative Action as part of the solution in expanding equal opportunity he went out of his way to deemphasize its importance by suggesting it should be treated as a mere footnote in the larger debate about how to combat discrimination. I am not surprise at his response, just a little disappointed.

Money quote:

I’ll be honest with you, though, I’ve always believed that affirmative action was less of an issue, or should be less than an issue, than it’s been made out to be in news reports. It’s not it hasn’t been as potent a force for racial progress as advocates would claim, and it hasn’t been as bad on white students seeking admissions or seeking a job as its critics has been.

I think the way to move forward on race is to make sure that every kid from the time they’re born is getting good nutrition and good education, is succeeding in K through 12, and we’re opening opportunities for all young people. Because when everybody’s got a level playing field, everybody’s competing, and we’ve dealt with some of the legacies of discrimination that have resulted in substandard schools or extreme poverty in some communities, then affirmative action ends up being an afterthought and we can really just make sure that everybody’s treated fairly in an environment that, in which race is rarely taken into account.

I can see opponents of affirmative action citing this response to arguefighting discrimination (regardless of the victim’s color) is fine, social programs that help the disadvantaged (again, regardless of color) are fine, but you don’t need racial preferences to do any of this.”

“You Know Where I Live”

18 05 2009
From President Obama’s Notre Dame Commencement speech this weekend:

Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena. No, dont worry, I’m not going to talk about that. We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world  Bookstore Basketball.

Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of “Hallelujah Holla Back.” Congratulations. Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the “Barack OBallers” did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6-2 forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.

Damn, this dude has got to be the coolest POTUS ever.

Obama Holds Impromptu Press Conference on Souter

1 05 2009

Clearly, Obama really enjoys being president.

As you can see he did not stray far from the empathy standard that he articulated as a presidential candidate.

The White House posted his remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: I just got off the telephone with Justice Souter. And so I would like to say a few words about his decision to retire from the Supreme Court.

Throughout his two decades on the Supreme Court, Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda. And he consistently defied labels and rejected absolutes, focusing instead on just one task — reaching a just result in the case that was before him.

He approached judging as he approaches life, with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion — the hallmark of not just being a good judge, but of being a good person.

I am incredibly grateful for his dedicated service. I told him as much when we spoke. I spoke on behalf of the American people thanking him for his service. And I wish him safe travels on his journey home to his beloved New Hampshire and on the road ahead.

Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role. I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded, and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

As I make this decision, I intend to consult with members of both parties across the political spectrum. And it is my hope that we can swear in our new Supreme Court Justice in time for him or her to be seated by the first Monday in October when the Court’s new term begins.


U.S. Runs for Human Rts Council Seat But Durban II Still a No Go

9 04 2009

Last week, the  Obama administration announced it would run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the next round of elections, a body that President Bush avoided and ignored.

In a press statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice referred to a need “for the Council to be balanced and credible” an explained that the U.S. is running for a the open seat because “we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Throughout the Bush years, U.N.-U.S. relations were always frosty to put it mildly.  Bush hardly felt comfortable around liberal internationalists of the American variety much less those from other countries steeped in global affairs. But his hostility toward the U.N. only hardened in the run up to the Iraq war where he failed to amass support for the March 2003 invasion. As early as the August 2003, President Bush alienated potential U.N. involvement in the creation of an Iraqi central government.

Of course, Dubya and company soon changed their minds once the Iraqi insurgency got going and the U.S. military found itself lacking the knowledge and skills for diffusing a post-conflict situation already cultivated by the U.N. peacekeeping and diplomatic corp.

But such a change of heart even if it was for out of desperation never extended to the Council, given how it was populated by some of the worse human rights abusers such as Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, who were eager to pass resolutions condemning Israel while also blocking scrutiny of treatment of their own citizens. To be fair, this is a problem that has vexed some of the most clear-eyed supporters of the U.N.

The legacy of that sort of politicization of the Council’s mission remains a huge problem even after the round of reforms in 2006, which dissolved the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1946.  The 06 reforms also nearly assured representation from some of the most repressive governments by allotting seats seats to countries based on regional blocs as opposed to a record of improvement.

That’s enough for critics of the Council, particularly Rice’s neoconservative predecessor John Bolton, believe the rights body is too fatally flawed and ineffective to warrant participation from the U.S. Never one to mince words former Ambassador Bolton reportedly told the New York Times, “You don’t show up at every ragtag little organization that comes into existence”.


Though its easy to dismiss Bolton’s criticism as shortsighted and irascible, it does evince a certain view of American power that still persists today in some quarters. The prestige of American power should not be diminished by engaging flawed institutions that provide cover to our adversaries. The world is against the U.S. and we must assert our influence whenever possible to ensure its power is preserved at worst and extended at best.

But hasn’t Bolton been paying attention? Our standing in the world has diminished as a result of human rights abuses during the Bush era. Torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo has done more to aid America’s detractors looking to deflect attention from their own human rights record as their criticize the U.S. and do so effectively.  One of the ways to counter these charges is to join the Human Rights Council and make sure that a proper comparison is made between the U.S and other countries on the Council, including the Sudans, Cubas, and Libyas of the world.

That said, the Obama administration is not going to participate in any U.N. forum even if it is human rights related. Consider U.N.’s upcoming conference on racism otherwise known as Durban II. The administration still won’t participate in it even though the latest agenda, or the outcome document, has been purged of nearly all of the things that it said it could not accept namely, references to reparations, strong criticisms of Israel, and severe limitations on freedom of expression.

Perhaps some may think that the U.S. sought to run for the Council seat as a way to placate critics for not participating in Durban II, but that’s a cynical misreading of the situation. As early as late January the administration was pondering joining the Human Rights Council.

The administration really fears that the whole affair will deteriorate into an anti-Israeli and anti-Western hate fest led by certain countries within the Organization of Islamic Conference. Its not an altogether irrational fear, but a very compelling one nonetheless.

Joining the Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction in overcoming that fear.