Pundits create drama in order to put themselves at the center of it, and for all the overheated cant about everything riding on tonight’s speech, nothing is going to change. You knew that when Obama’s statement that “there remain significant details to be ironed out” before a final health-care plan is created was met with loud, disrespectful laughter. After that, a Republican congressman shouting “You lie!” to the president was startling, but also par for the course.
Nothing is going to change. The fight will resume, the abusive tactics will continue, the fur will fly—and one way or another, probably procedurally, Obama and most of the Democrats will ram the plan through. By the end of the year, Americans will have health-care reform that will disappoint left and right, satisfy the great American middle, and over the years, through administrative, bureaucratic and legislative tinkering, will provide affordable, good-quality health care to every American citizen.
FDR and LBJ, too, faced charges of socialist sympathies and dictatorial ambitions. The difference is those political conflicts were not magnified a million-fold by a desperate media hungry for polarized spectacle, and eager to utter cries of deadlock, crisis, and alarm.
Watching Obama deliver the speech tonight, I wondered what the process leading up to the legislative transformations of the New Deal and the Great Society would have been like if today’s conditions had prevailed. Has any American legislative process ever been exposed to such infinite public scrutiny, hair-splitting analysis, and media theatrics? To such journalistic book-making and scorekeeping?
We have forgotten what ferocious opposition FDR and LBJ faced from their opponents, who also accused them of socialist sympathies and dictatorial ambitions. But the difference between then and now is that those political conflicts were not magnified a million-fold by a desperate media hungry for polarized spectacle, and eager to utter cries of deadlock, crisis, and alarm.
Remove the pumped-up, instant stories about Obama faltering, flailing, and failing, the hyped-up coverage of the town-hall confrontations, the sportswriting rhetoric about tonight’s speech—we’re in the final seconds, will he make the shot?—and you have the pedestrian fact of a controversial piece of legislation tortuously making its way toward law. The opposition was predictable. The disappointment of political fundamentalists on both sides was to be expected. Compromise was inevitable.
But perhaps Bush outrage and Bush indignation were so productive and so profitable for so many people that deep in their warm and compassionate hearts, many in the “liberal” media want Obama to go down to defeat. If being cast out of power is a type of Republican bliss, being treated unjustly is a kind of liberal ecstasy.
To read the hectoring, patronizing American media over the last few months, you would have thought Obama, formerly their black prince, had become an affirmative-action hire in need of administrative intervention. Was he really “losing control” of the health-care debate? Was he really allowing the lunatics to trample it into dust? In our moment of illusory transparency, the media think that if they can’t see something, then it doesn’t exist. They couldn’t see Obama acting behind the scenes, so therefore, he and his advisers couldn’t possibly be acting behind the scenes.
But here he was tonight, performing in plain view the rather thrilling gamesmanship of strongly supporting the public option with the obvious intention of finally relinquishing it as the Great Sacrifice that would make any others unthinkable. And—also thrilling, if you like poker—making the brilliant move of finally putting tort reform on the table, after (mostly) giving the impression that it was off the table altogether.
No, tonight’s speech won’t change anything. Every day will bring new headlines of dramatic setbacks, defeats, duels to the death, Obama’ presidency hinging on the fate of health care. But undramatically, mundanely, and pragmatically, Obama will get his legislation.
And then we can all watch as the media proclaims new setbacks, defeats, and duels to the death—as it tells us that Obama’s presidency now hinges on the fate of Afghanistan.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.