During the 2008 presidential campaign, I heard Ken Burns make a speech at an Obama fundraiser in which he made Barack Obama out to be another Lincoln. Both senators were young – too young, many thought, too inexperienced — when they first appeared on the national stage. Both, Burns continued, were lanky, rail thin, almost wispy: surely there must be something in that. Both came from Illinois, or at least both sort of came from Illinois, and both possessed the extraordinarily eloquence needed to bring together a suffering, divided nation.
As the speech unfolded, and the fact of Obama’s ordination became unavoidable, inescapable, the crowd made appreciative sounds. Burns is widely considered a genius of history, especially in liberal circles, and if Ken Burns said Obama was going to be the next Lincoln, quell our civil strife, and make us whole again, then it must be so. One could almost see a PBS special in the works, the image of one man dissolving into the other.
Burns was not the only one to serve up this particular blend of historical swill. He was good at it, because he’s used to reducing history to a mix of inoffensive platitudes and emotional mush, but in the run up to the election I heard the comparison with Lincoln made frequently (only not too loudly, not too publicly, as if saying it out loud too often or to too many people would break the spell, or at least invite some difficult questions).
Of course, this was not, and could not be the popular narrative. Opinions varied; and the thin man from Illinois had to be kept a cipher in order to have the widest appeal possible. Some conservative commentators who had become disillusioned with McCain discovered Reaganesque traits in candidate Obama. I thought I saw – or I wanted to see — in him the makings of a second Eisenhower, who would undertake big, green, ambitious 21st century infrastructure projects. Most people just hoped for anything other than more of the same.
Then, after the elation of the Obama victory, when it really did seem as if the reign of ignorance, brutality, cronyism and incompetence under which this country and the whole world had suffered was finally over, we were told ad nauseam by every major network and every news outlet that what matters is what happens in the first 100 days of a new presidency.
The big media started dutifully reporting that the Obama and his advisers – “Team Obama” — were studying FDR’s first 100 days, reading history, no less, to help them think through the challenges ahead. The narrative shifted: in the wake of the financial crisis, our troubles looked more like those FDR inherited in the 1930s. It was time for a New Deal, or a second Great Society – a Newer and Greater Society, I guess. And, by gum, with some teamwork and the right model, we would set things right.
But as Thomas Frank pointed out so brilliantly in his most recent column, the Democrats and President Obama have failed on healthcare so far because they have failed miserably at making the simple argument that “we are a society.” And that’s one key argument needed to counter the story Republicans are pushing: that we are a nation of rugged individualists and social Darwinists, and that social obligations limit individual liberties. Republicans would be wise to stick with this story as long as they can, and to build a strategy around it.
Why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare? First, because I already do: that’s the way the insurance business works. We all pay into the system every month so that the system can cover the medical expenses some subscribers incur. And along the way, some companies and some individuals – those who run the system, or game it — profit from our hedge against illness and catastrophe.
But that’s not the real argument Democrats needed to make. They need to persuade us, or at least (for starters) persuade themselves, that healthcare is a public good — not a “right.” Many Democrats so far have been unable or unwilling to give up the talk about rights (by which they really often mean entitlements), when it would be better to talk about healthcare as a public good, or even a public utility or service. And in order to make an argument that healthcare is a public good, you have to first remind people that there is such a “thing” as “the public,” a res publica or “republic”; and people have to do more than understand it. They need to feel it in their gut or their heart or wherever conviction is born. You have to persuade them that we are a society of free people with the potential to be great – which is something Lincoln and FDR and Ronald Reagan were all able to do.
Of course, it may already be too late to change course: the word “public” has now been tainted by “the public option”; and a public option may or may not serve the public good or be in the public interest. We don’t know, and we are not likely to have the nuanced discussion required to find out. Instead, opponents have been able to cast reform as just another big government takeover or entitlement program. Democrats are still trying to debate policy, but they have already lost the battle if their opponents have persuaded people that “policy” is just the politics of income redistribution.
What does all this have to do with the thin man from Illinois? The hijacking of the healthcare debate and the disintegration of the republic into fractious town halls is his failure – a failure of leadership and a lack of what George Bush the First called the vision thing. This is the last kind of failure I expected from candidate Obama, who was able to appeal to our better natures, even when we were down, and make us feel that we are all in this together (even if we disagreed on matters of policy). But it was, I fear, just a feeling. We thought he would call on us all, to ask what we can do for our country; but the call hasn’t come.
“Yes, we can!” was good and strong enough to get him through November, but President Obama seems lately to have forgotten that phrase, its energy and enthusiasm as well as the electoral mandate for real change it helped to produce. We all knew it was an advertiser’s slogan, but we hoped beyond hope that it was something more than cynical manipulation, or that this time there was really something in it for us and for what used to be termed, without embarrassment or apology, our republic.