Obama’s Fast Start

When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, I was 6 years old, so his election didn’t mean as much to me as it did for my parents. For them, JFK’s election legitimized Irish Catholics in American society, more than a century after our ancestors had immigrated to the United States.

Before JFK, many Catholics felt they had something to prove, particularly in Northwest Iowa, where Irish Catholic was about as “ethnic” as you got in the 1950s and ’60s. Since JFK, we haven’t sent any more Catholics to the White House, but that’s because we have better things to do (mainly fighting amongst ourselves).

Now, whatever else happens, a clear majority of voters in the United States have put their trust in a black man to lead us into what appears to be the roughest economic patch since the Great Depression. It isn’t the end of racism, as some Republicans have suggested, but from here on African-American parents won’t be jiving their kids when they tell them they can grow up to be president. Regardless of whatever else Barack Obama accomplishes in the next four years, he has raised aspirations.

And if Obama should win a second term, kids who are in the fourth grade this year will graduate from high school thinking there is nothing unusual about having a president who is black.

Of course, we’re a long way from Obama’s second term—although a wag at ThePoorMan.net noted that Obama already has been sworn in twice. But the 44th president got a fast start on his first term, issuing executive orders trying to undo much of the mess left by his predecessor during the closing days of the Bush regime, and working to gain approval for his economic recovery plan.

During his first 100 hours in office, Obama ordered a freeze on new regulations at all government agencies. He also reinstated the Freedom of Information Act after years of Bush administration obstruction and denial of requests for public documents. Obama ordered all agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor” of FOIA requests. Former presidents such as George W. Bush should find it harder to block release of their old secrets. That not only should help journalists and public-interest watchdog groups; it also could clear the way for congressional investigators seeking memos detailing White House involvement in the US Attorney firings in 2006, the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name and discussions relating to the decision to invade Iraq.

Obama also instructed US military leaders to start planning a withdrawal from Iraq, ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed within one year and suspended all military tribunals for six months. He ordered an end to torture and the CIA’s secret prisons and he appointed high-level emissaries to sort things out in Israel-Palestine and Pakistan-Afghanistan.

Obama laid out strict lobbying limits, banning White House aides from trying to influence the administration when they leave his staff and banning gifts from lobbyists to anyone in the administration. He also overturned the Global Gag Rule, which prohibited US aid from going toward any organization that mentioned abortion as an option in family planning. That lets 16 countries regain access to birth control support.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, Obama sought Republican support for his $825 billion economic recovery package. He included $300 billion in tax breaks to appeal to the diehard supply-siders. His reward on Jan. 27, after three meetings with GOP leaders, was the pronouncement by House Republican Leader John Boehner that GOP House members would oppose the stimulus. They complained that House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has larded the bill with items such as $90 billion in aid to states for Medicaid, $30 billion to subsidize health insurance for people who lose their jobs, $20 billion to accelerate new health care information technology and $1 billion to renovate community health centers. The GOP disparaged $15.6 billion to increase college Pell Grants, $6 billion to extend broadband Internet access to rural areas and $4 billion to help communities buy and improve distressed properties. Funding for other worthy public works, such as mass transit projects, lost out to the tax cuts, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Democrats were “drifting away” from Obama’s preference for a stimulus that includes 40% tax cuts.

So Republicans will struggle against the current. They probably won’t support a stimulus package that is weighted toward creating 3.7 million jobs over the next two years. The GOP will let the Democrats do the heavy lifting and they’ll disregard any good that comes from it. If the stimulus works, they’ll say it would have worked better if they had provided more tax cuts for the rich. If it doesn’t work, they’ll say “We told you so!”

Obama is not naive. He wants to pass bills with as broad a consensus as he can manage, but he talked about his negotiating style in November 2007, telling the Keene, N.H., Sentinel he’s open to compromise but won’t let people take advantage of him. “I give people the benefit of the doubt and try to understand their point of view,” he said. “If I perceive that they’re trying to take advantage of that, then I’ll crush them.”

The GOP instinct is to follow the reasoning of Rush Limbaugh, who admitted on his radio show that he hopes Obama fails. Obama is giving Republicans the chance to be part of the solution. If Republicans try to obstruct his program, Obama has clear majorities in the House and Senate. Dems will have 59 votes in the Senate when Landslide Al Franken (DFL-Minn.) finally claims his seat after former Sen. Norm Coleman exhausts his appeals. Republicans can try a filibuster, with no votes to spare, but then it will be clear who is trying to sabotage the recovery.

Citizens can strengthen Obama’s hand by keeping pressure on Congress members to support the economic stimulus and push for more progressive initiatives to follow. The citizen’s job doesn’t stop with the election. House Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are particularly vulnerable to persuasion. “Their constituents want them to take action to save the economy, not block progress,” a White House aide told Politico.com.

As more people lose their jobs, and the rest of us wonder how secure our jobs are, the time is ripe for Congress to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. People who lose jobs may assume health insurance costs paid by their former employers, under federal law, or they can shop for insurance for themselves and their family. But unemployment benefits won’t cover private health insurance as well as the rent, utilities, groceries and other bills. Medicaid provides health coverage to low-income families, but as local economies deteriorate more states will have trouble coming up with their share of the costs. Republicans cite emergency rooms as the safety net for the unemployed, but that leaves charity hospitals or local governments to pick up the unpaid bills.

Obama plans to move toward universal coverage by encouraging businesses to provide health insurance and helping individuals buy insurance for their families, either through private companies or a government pool. It would be simpler for businesses and individuals if the federal government expanded Medicare to cover everybody. The vast majority of businesses and individuals would pay less for health coverage under this single-payer plan, which could be financed with a payroll tax of 7% on employers and an income tax of 2% on individuals, Physicians for a National Health Program (pnhp.org) notes.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee/California Nurses Association (Calnurses.org) figures that Medicare for All would create 2.6 million jobs—slightly more than the number of jobs lost in 2008—and health-care jobs would not easily be shipped overseas. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has reintroduced HR 676 in the 111th Congress. Supporters hope to get 150 cosponsors by the end of February in order to get the bill included in the health care reform discussion. Last year it had 93 co-sponsors.

For more information, and to see if your House member is a co-sponsor, see (populist.com/healthcare.html). — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist.