When Barack Obama backed a Senate health reform plan that differed radically from prior proposals, he ignored the lessons he learned as a young organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Obama once knew that it's wrong to bypass the community’s agenda to strike a backroom deal, regardless of its superior terms. Obama also understood that failing to consult with the community disempowers the base, and discourages people from participating in future organizing campaigns.
While progressives debate the merits of the Senate plan, the tragedy of the health care debacle is that the President asked key constituency groups and activists to mobilize for months behind a plan for public option that he suddenly abandoned – without even consulting those he claims to represent. In contrast, he seeks input from Wall Street bankers before implementing fiscal policies, and spent hours meeting with military leaders in formulating strategy for Afghanistan.
Obama told labor unions, the HCAN coalition, AARP, MoveOn, Democracy for America, the progressive blogosphere, and the millions of Democrats on the Party’s email lists that meaningful health reform could not happen unless they all joined him in the fight. Obama also used his Organizing for America to raise money for health reform, and to mobilize support through house meetings, phone calls, and other grassroots actions.
And then he unilaterally made a backroom deal that entirely ignored both activists and those they mobilized.
Obama has sent a troubling message to progressives, and particularly to young activists new to the political game.
It is hard to believe that Obama could so completely forget what he learned as a community organizer. After all these groups and individuals worked day and night for a public option, the President engaged in the ultimate act of disempowerment by cutting a deal that eliminated this central reform in favor of a quasi-Medicare option that even Senators did not fully understand.
And as facts about this option came out – such as the New York Times report
that the Medicare option would annually cost an exorbitant $15,200 per couple – what became understandable became unconscionable.
A community organizer that so manipulated their grassroots base would be fired. And while Obama is the President, this did not entitle him to inspire people to rally around a cause – and to ask them to give money in tough economic times – when he felt no hesitancy about discarding its central component.
Obama Deceives His Base
Obama knows that a community organizer is only as good as their word. You can’t organize or mobilize people without their trust, and Barack Obama’s success at mobilizing millions in his fall 2008 campaign was attributable to his convincing a cynical electorate that he could be trusted to bring real change.
I now wonder why anyone who worked for the public option that Obama promoted both in his campaign and in nationally televised presidential speeches would enlist in a future Obama issue campaign. If the President feels free to unilaterally ignore his base on his signature priority, there’s no reason this pattern will not apply to the rest of his agenda.
And those who argue that it is unfair to blame Obama for the inability to get 60 Senators to support a robust public option miss two critical points.
First, Obama chose not to insist on the reconciliation process, which would have brought the public option and other key reforms with only 51 votes.
Second, Obama could have done what community organizers often must do when they realize that a goal cannot be met: speak honestly with the base about the inability to surmount political obstacles, and work collaboratively to strike the best deal possible under the circumstances.
It has been no secret for months that getting 60 Senate votes for meaningful health reform would be an uphill struggle, and Obama had plenty of time to discuss alternatives with key constituency groups. Obama has no excuse for his failure to get representatives of the leading health care advocacy groups and progressive media in a room to discuss strategies to address the political realities of reform.
Had Obama followed the community organizer’s lesson book and spoke honestly with his base, there could have emerged a Senate strategy with constituency buy-in. Or even had Obama concluded that his base was politically unrealistic, and told them that he would accept proposals they found insufficient, the terrible feelings of surprise and betrayal that accompanied reports of the deal would have been avoided.
Instead, Obama sent a message to his allies that their perceived partnership in the fight for health care was illusory. Obama felt free to unilaterally back the Senate deal, notwithstanding his longstanding rhetoric that “I can’t do this alone,” or his insistence that he and his supporters are working for a “common purpose.”
Unlike a community organizer, a President has the right to take actions opposed by his constituency. But backing a Senate deal without consulting his base is precisely the type of “politics as usual” that candidate Obama pledged to end if elected.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century