It’s been over 60 years since President Harry Truman urged Congress to enact a national health care system. Now, even longtime activists seem surprised that Barack Obama could not simply snap his fingers and win universal health care during his first seven months in office. That’s not how major social change is won. It’s not that easy, and movements, not politicians, typically drive success. That’s why the armchair critics who see President Obama, rather than activists, as holding the key to passage are so off base. Barack Obama has created the best opportunity to enact universal health care with a public option since Truman’s presidency. He has made a strong case for the public option, and used his personal popularity to drive the issue. But it is now up to constituency pressure to get the job done. It will take activists’ grassroots pressure campaigns targeting key legislators from the August recess through the day Congress votes to transform this opening for health care reform into a landmark victory.
As the media continues to present slanted and hostile coverage
of health care reform with the massive coverage
of opposition to Obama’s plan from a self-identified “raging Republican” small businesswoman only the latest example – progressive criticism of Obama’s handling of the issue has grown. Separate from the longstanding complaint that the proposed reform is not a single-payer plan, much of the criticism implies that passing health care requires a specific presidential negotiating strategy with Congress, rather than increased pressure from below.
It’s tempting to see politics in these terms, because it absolves activists and progressives of any responsibility for political outcomes. If we can blame Obama, Pelosi or the large target of Harry Reid for health care not passing, we do not have to ask ourselves what we have did to bring a different result.
But with polls showing strong support for both universal health care and a public option, activists can’t sit on the sidelines. Progressives should view August and September 2009 as equivalent to September and October 2008, recognizing that if the Republicans stop health care reform, all hopes for a new progressive era are at risk.
Ripe Territory for Organizing
In 1993-94, health care organizers ran into a persistent problem: the American people did not trust the government option. Today, public attitudes are dramatically reversed, creating a welcome field for organizers seeking to build constituency pressure on Congressmembers and Senators.
Of course, some activists may have the opposite impression of the public mindset about real health care reform. After all, when the New York Times misrepresents its own poll to reach a front-page headline
“In New Poll, More Signs of Unease Over Health,” such confusion is understandable.
What did the poll find? That a whopping 66% of respondents feared losing their health insurance if the government did not create a new system, and that 80% felt that the number of uninsured Americans would rise if Congress did not act.
This sure looks like an overwhelming mandate for change. And it means organizers will be contacting a population eager to take action for health care reform
But what about Obama? The media has been saying that his approval numbers are down and that he may not be able to sway the American people to back real health care reform.
Well, the Times poll found twice as many people believed Obama had better ideas about changing health care than Congressional Republicans. A headline that read, “Poll shows Public Overwhelming Backs Obama’s Health Care Ideas” would have more accurately captured the poll’s “big picture” than the lead used instead.
Prior to the 2004 election, progressives had a longstanding problem: insufficient numbers of activists were located in the swing states that decided Presidential races, or the key congressional districts that impacted post-election policies. This changed in 2004 when activists working for John Kerry parachuted in to Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and other swing states, though this occurred too late in the process to swing the election. The Obama campaign took this strategy to the next level, establishing organizing bases in all swing states so that activists could spend months rather than weeks working their turf.
Today, there is no shortage of opportunities for activists in states like California, Massachusetts and New York – where less pressure is needed – to help mobilize support for health care reform where it is most needed. The most prominent vehicles for activist involvement are with the groups associated with the Health Care for America Now
(HCAN) coalition, the Howard Dean-led Democracy for America
, the Obama and Democratic Party controlled Organizing for America
, and Move On
All of the above groups, and many more, are prioritizing health care. They are all eager to put volunteers to work where they are most needed.
Don’t Let Conservatives Reverse the November Election
Many activists worked so hard in the months leading up to last November’s election that they needed a break to refresh themselves. Some hoped that the combination of President Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress would allow them to stay on the sidelines, while those they elected enacted a progressive agenda.
But no major change occurs without activists in the lead, and everything activists worked for last fall is now at risk if a strong health care measure is not enacted. If you are among those who have been watching, rather than participating, in the national drive to finally bring universal health care to the United States, your efforts are needed to ensure that history is again made.
And if health care is not your priority, and you are saving your energies for passing immigration reform, EFCA, or the climate change bill, recognize that these will become very uphill battles if progressives are defeated on health care. As health care goes, so does the progressive agenda, and activists must prevent conservatives from reversing the gains thought to have been won with Obama’s victory.
Randy Shaw discusses activism’s role in fostering social change in The Activist’s Handbook.