The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins disposed of a rival by saying that he spoke with “the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from a table with his mouth full of bread and cheese” — saying that he will stand no more “blasted nonsense.”
In the same spirit, President Barack Obama bounced up from the table where he supped with organized labor over Labor Day and declared that he would stand no more blasted nonsense on the issue of health care. In a dramatic display of presidential impatience (deploying the rhetorical devise of anaphora, or repetition of a phrase at the beginning of successive sentences), he said:
Every debate at some point comes to an end. At some point, it’s time to decide. At some point, it’s time to act. Ohio, it’s time to act and get this thing done.
One of the problems with health care in America is the fact that millions of unionized workers have gold-plated health insurance plans — which encourage waste and depend upon a tax system that unfairly imposes substantially higher costs on other workers who, unlike their union brethren in big companies and the public sector, are either self-employed or work for small businesses.
But that was not the problem that exorcized the president and his fervent supporters within the AFL-CIO on Labor Day. The problem was that after days, or even weeks, of debate, we, as a nation, still have not passed the most momentous (and slapdash) health care legislation of all time.
Barack Obama was not always so impatient. Back in his days as a community organizer in Chicago, he could readily understand why unionized steel workers would not support a cockamamie scheme — dreamt up by his then boss and mentor — to invest their own money in a plan to save one of the few remaining steel operations in the city.
In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama tells how Gerald Kellman (identified under the pseudonym of Marty Kaufman), made the following “pitch” to the president, vice president and treasurer of the local:
The corporation (LTV) was preparing to get out of the steelmaking business, he said, and wage concessions would only prolong the agony. If the union wanted to preserve jobs, it had to take some new, bold steps. Sit down with the churches and develop a plan for a worker buyout. Negotiate with the city for concessionary utilities and tax rates during the transition. Pressure the banks to provide loans that could be used to make the plant competitive again.
The reaction? Stunned silence and disbelief. In Obama’s words, “the union officials shifted uneasily in their chairs. Finally, the president stood up and told Marty that his ideas merited further study but that right now the union had to focus on making an immediate decision about management’s [buyout] offer. In the parking lot afterward, Marty looked stunned.”
Obama himself was not the least bit stunned by this rebuff. He agreed with another community organizer in doubting the “relevance” of keeping the LTV plant open. As he grandly — and rather cavalierly — put it, “Organizing the unions might help the few blacks who remained in the plants keep their jobs; it wouldn’t dent the rolls of the chronically unemployed any time soon.”
More interestingly still, following hard on the heels of this incident, Obama was told by his team of volunteers that they want to quit. It seems that they had begun to doubt the “relevance” of continuing to work for him! Obama managed to quell the incipient revolt by giving an impromptu and very pretty speech about change — asking if they were prepared to join him in the heroic task of helping the least fortunate.
In total contrast to Marty’s speech to the union officials, Obama’s speech to the community volunteers was, by his own admission, devoid of any real substance, and yet also compelling enough to keep the group from disbanding. This is the dialogue at the end of the story:
“You handed that meeting pretty good, Barack. Seems like you know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t, Mona. I don’t have a clue.”
She laughed. “Well, I promise I won’t tell anybody.”
“I appreciate that, Mona. I sure do appreciate that.”
Let us assume that the administration doesn’t have a clue as to how the health care plan is going to work — how it is supposed to slash costs and expand coverage at the same time through the instrumentality of greater government intervention into the marketplace. Will more words — mere words — be enough to sell the plan? Well, maybe it will — in terms of securing passage of some kind of a healthcare bill in a veto-proof, Democratically-controlled Congress.
But selling the same legislation to the American people — and making them believe it marks real progress and is not a complete fiasco — is another matter altogether.
Like the union officials addressed by the president’s one-time mentor, the American people realize that they have some real skin in this game. They don’t want to give up something they know and understand for something that looks and sounds more than a little crazy.