What’s Hidden in the Healthcare Hyperbole?

Speaking yesterday to some very enthusiastic students at the University of Maryland, President Obama called health insurance reform a “defining struggle of this generation.” I know the President frequently resorts to hyperbole when he wants to heighten the emotion around a point, but I have to wonder: if I were still that young, and belonged to that generation, wouldn’t I be sorely and sadly disappointed if I learned that this was the hand history had dealt me?

I think of myself at 19, 20, or 21, and I have a hard time imagining that a drive to reform the healthcare system, or change the way people buy health insurance, would be a cause I would have embraced or taken up. Obama himself admits that when he was young, healthcare wasn’t exactly top of mind. I know what he’s saying; we’re the same age. It wasn’t just that I was young and thought I was “invulnerable,” as the President put it. Other priorities shaped my politics and my commitments.

We thought we were up against some great and mighty forces that threatened us and the entire world and made the future look grim. We took on big causes, because the world seemed big with causes that needed taking on.

Maybe we were just raging incoherently against the machine. But in the late 70s or early 80s, would I even have dignified healthcare with the word “struggle”? And “defining”? Would I want to be defined by it? Not a great struggle against fascism or totalitarianism, not a high-stakes cold war game of nuclear chess in which the fate of the entire world hung in the balance, not a struggle for Human Rights, not even the Peace Corps, or the elimination of nuclear weaponry, or ending hunger and poverty, not a call to great works or great causes, but a piece of wonkery — a policy fix that is already looking like another bloated and ineffectual piece of legislation from a bloated, ineffectual and dysfunctional Congress. Next to this, bringing democracy to the Middle East starts to look like a piece of high-mindedness.

Is this really what hope looks like? Maybe piecemeal reforms on healthcare or student loans (another issue the President singled out in Maryland) are precisely the kind of repairs we need to make right now; the idealists of the last administration certainly didn’t make them. But that doesn’t mean fixing healthcare or student loan packages amounts to making history or the great work of a whole generation. You’d have to work pretty hard to find any real inspiration or idealism in all this, despite the President’s appeal to youthful idealism. It looks as if the President is a pragmatist who talks like an idealist when trying to make reforms.

Of course, Obama prepared the ground for this particular piece of hyperbole in his joint session speech, when he spun the debate over health insurance as a test of our country’s “character,” a battle between selfishness and altruism. As I noted in a previous post, that’s not such a bad framework for policy debate, and this latest speech may indicate that the President is willing to stick with the moral argument for now. At the very least, and to his credit, he’s trying to engage people in some real questions about who we are and who we want to be. Which makes it all sound very defining indeed.

And perhaps it is, but not exactly in the way Obama intends it to be. In their latest op ed against Obamacare, David Rivkin and Lee Casey suggest that Obama’s idealist rhetoric is really an attempt to sell a whole generation down the river. The President’s appeal to the young people gathered at the University of Maryland, and to young people across the country, is

far more cynical and political. Making healthy young adults pay billions of dollars in premiums into the national health-care market is the only way to fund universal coverage without raising substantial new taxes. In effect, this mandate would be one more giant, cross-generational subsidy—imposed on generations who are already stuck with the bill for the federal government’s prior spending sprees.

What’s more, Rivkin and Casey go on to argue, requiring those same healthy young adults to purchase insurance may turn out to be unconstitutional; and it’s clear from their article that a constitutional challenge to mandatory health insurance is in the works.

The merits of that legal argument aside, the President’s hyperbole on healthcare may not be entirely cynical or sinister. He may simply be trying to divert youthful energy and idealism into constructive channels. But consider this: diverting those energies into healthcare, and turning healthcare reform into the calling of an entire generation, is also a diversionary tactic — a way of narrowing the debate, ruling things out or deciding what causes count, what counts as history. And that’s a way of advancing an agenda and consolidating power.

Now more than ever, young Americans have every reason to be suspicious of anyone who comes to them with a plan for their generation or the struggles that will define it. Given the the planet, the world, the country they have inherited, young people today could do worse than heed the advice of their grandfathers and grandmothers: don’t let anyone define you, and don’t trust anyone over 30.

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