In September of 2008, the economy was in the midst of a major meltdown due to the negligence and irresponsibility of many on Wall Street, the failure of our government to perform their proper regulatory functions, and the irresponsibility of many American consumers.
As a result, the Bush administration pushed for a $700 billion package (The Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP) to bail-out the banking industry that got us into the mess to begin with, arguing that to do nothing would make the situation far worse. Congress was pressured by the administration to act quickly and pass the package because of the doomsday scenario that would ensue if they failed to take action.
The election was weeks away and this was clearly a very critical decision and the American people overwhelmingly expressed their concerns and urged their representatives to vote against the bill. In a true reflection of democracy in action, the representatives listened and the bill failed.
Undaunted, the Bush administration kept at it and with the help of leading Democrats in Congress, a deal was brokered and the bill came up for a vote again and passed. This all happened in a matter of two weeks.
Think about that. Over $700 billion in taxpayer money was given to the corporations that were mostly to blame for the recession after TWO WEEKS of debate, one failed attempt to pass the bill, and a concerted effort by the Bush administration to strike fear into the hearts and minds of members of Congress and the American public so the bill would pass.
I share this information with you for sake of comparison to the passing of health care reform under Obama. The Obama Administration pushed for an overhaul of our health care system (which has been an issue for over a half-century and is eating through a large hole in our budget and causing enormous deficits) for about a year, a year in which there was intense debate on both sides, and yet he was accused of stifling and silencing debate, as well as not seeking bipartisan support and pushing through a bill that lacked popular support.
I could go on and on about the various details surrounding the period in which health care reform was debated. What is significant was that, despite what Fox News and other right-wing media outlets claimed, the bill was debated, Obama signed a bi-partisan bill even though no Republicans voted for it, and the majority of Americans supported the elements in the bill, just not the bill itself. Allow me to elaborate on these last two points.
Not a single Republican voted for the final health care bill. But the bill was watered down and included some Republican ideas, both as means to garner Republican support, and still, they did not budge. And somehow, it was Obama who eschewed bipartisanship? Then the Republicans have the nerve to say the bill does not do enough when they are largely to blame for that! What is more troubling about the claim Obama passed a partisan bill was how easily it was accepted by many Americans. If one defines bipartisanship by the number of votes “gained” from the opposing party, then no, the health care bill was definitely not bipartisan. But it is false and disingenuous to suggest the bill did not contain input from Republicans nor was made available for their input, which I would say should have paved the way for bipartisanship of the former kind.
It was not for a lack of trying on Obama’s part that not a single Republican voted for the health care bill.
As for public support for passing the health care bill, depending on the poll you looked at, you might have seen majority support or opposition for the bill. But when asked about specific elements in the bill, Americans largely supported what was in it. The two biggest negatives in the bill, according to the polling, was the cost of the plan and the individual mandate. Reasonable points of dissatisfaction, but this polling confirms that the American public did not really know what is in the bill (Obama could be partly to blame for that) and had been duped by the MSM, particularly Fox News, into focusing on things that were not in the bill at all (death panels) and on Obama. The attacks on Obama and his agenda garnered the most attention and attracted the most vocal opponents of the bill to storm town hall meetings, make ridiculous claims, and compare Obama to Hitler.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I followed the health care debate very closely and the rhetoric, misinformation, deceitfulness and plain nastiness that ensued was more shocking than the casual follower probably realized. For me, it was the pinnacle of political cynicism and public ignorance of even the most basic facts. And I am sure it caught President Obama’s attention and I would argue it took him by surprise.
He underestimated the right’s capability for vitriolic attack and inciting disdain amongst the public towards he and his policies. The right and their media wing made the health care debate about Obama and not about substance, coining the term “Obamacare” and encouraging the labeling of Obama as a “socialist”. And still, Obama worked to get Republican support and include their ideas, even backing down on the public option (though some would argue he never wanted it in the bill in the first place). Given his rise since announcing his candidacy and the way in which he swept into office, this must have been an unexpected turn of events. I doubt he expected Republicans to be too eager to help him succeed, but what he got from them, which I would describe as an effort to bring about his failure, could not have been foreseen by even the most cynical political observers.
That aside, I will say that it is understandable that the American public would be leery of another large spending program months after the aforementioned financial bailout. This was arguably how the Tea Party was born.
But I cannot wrap my head around the fact that the financial bailout, though widely unpopular, has been greeted with much less scrutiny and less criticism than the health care bill has. I am not sure if TARP is more or less unpopular than the health care bill, but how soon Republicans and the American public forgot the legislative process that went into passing TARP when it came time to discuss health reform. Critics simply lacked any sense of irony in denouncing the way in which health reform passed and advocating for how TARP passed, as well as the merits of passing it in the first place.
Basically, this is what critics of health reform and supporters of TARP (the same people, aka, Republicans, in most cases) expressed in their actions: Let’s give more money to those who have already lost a large chunk of the money we have been given them all these years instead of investing money (investing money is an idea you would think Republicans could get behind) in an infrastructure meant to keep us healthy and alive. To quote Mugato as played by Will Ferrel in Zoolander, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here!”.
I will close with this clip of Bush’s address to the nation in September of 2008:
Obama spoke about the merits of passing health care reform on numerous occasions, and arguably reform of that system will mean much more to our long-term economic security than TARP ever could. But maybe he should have sought to strike fear in the American public by going on TV and warning that to not pass health reform would be to, literally, strike the nail in the coffin for thousands of Americans.
(Part IV to come)