One national moment-of-nausea this Labor Day weekend struck Sunday morning, when CNN’s John King led off his 10 a.m. State of the Union show with a valentine to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, on her becoming anchor of that network’s evening news. (This was the most important news of the week???) The old legacy networks have taken on the role of dishing out reassurance to an anxious and insecure public as job number one, and the subtext of the Sawyer lede was that a Mommy figure would soon be in place to soothe the multitudes even as the nation free-falls into bankruptcy and disorder. This is supposed to be a counterpoint to the chorus of smug, braying rabble-rousers who inflame the crowds on Fox News and MSNBC, and CNBC — the Glen Becks and Keith Olbermans and Dennis Kneales — who work the anger regions of the brain.
The inherent conflicts arise from a nation that simply cannot bring itself to try getting its house in order. Instead of adult leadership, we prefer good parent / bad parent therapy — a psychodrama of alternating messages of reassurance and punishment that provides distraction from problems and conundrums too horrible to face. One unfortunate result is the evaporating legitimacy of anyone or anything in authority, and that is extremely dangerous at a time like this because it creates the perfect opportunity for the rise of a corn-pone Hitler who will beat a path straight into a national ordeal-by-fire, and make everybody feel better by telling them clearly what to do.
President Obama rolls out his much-awaited message on health care reform to a joint session of congress this week after a summer of chaotic and often mendacious debate. The system now running is so unjust and ruinous that a citizenry unmedicated by psychotropic drugs would have burned down the insurers by now (and perhaps torched their doctors’ BMWs). As a tactical matter, the best Mr. Obama can do about the “public option” is to endorse it while kicking the can down the road, since the stark insolvency of the US treasury obviates any real ability to make it happen.
But I believe the public would be greatly appeased (and helped!) by legislation that achieved a few simple ends: 1.) clearly and absolutely outlaw insurers canceling policy contracts under any circumstances. 2.) outlaw denial-of-care tactics. 3.) outlaw campaign contributions by lobbyists, period. If Obama can present these items front-and-center, he can then point to congress and tell the nation that they can hold them responsible for their plight. Other urgent health care reforms could be subject to regulation rather than legislation. For example, medical care is not “competitive” in any meaningful sense; people with severe problems and illnesses are not comparable to “consumers” comparison shopping for flat-screen TVs. The truth is, they are hostages to their local hospitals and the specialists they are referred to. The ridiculous prices charged for everything from aspirins to tests to cotton swabs to time occupying a hospital room ought to be subject to review, and procedures can be set up to accomplish this, with severe fines for abusers. Personally, I’d charge the FCC with returning to its policy of banning drug advertising on TV.
Polls are reporting a steep slide in President Obama’s approval ratings, especially among white voters. I doubt that this is about the health care debate, which obviously remains unresolved at the time the polls were taken. I think it is about Mr. Obama’s shoveling of huge sums into Wall Street, and the unabated obscene money-grubbing by the executives there — while millions of ordinary people get thrown out of their houses, lose jobs that they’ll never get back, and slip-slide permanently out of the middle class. His relations with Wall Street are destroying his legitimacy. His failure to demonstrably clean house at the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators, or to direct the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute misdeeds stemming from the swindles and frauds in securitized debt, make him look like a stooge to the bankers.
I personally fault the president for putting no effort into the larger necessary tasks of leading a transition away from suburbanization, failing to promote public transit rather than continued car-dependency, not preparing for re-localized farming, and continuing the unaffordable racket of imperial military over-reach in a mode indistinguishable from G. W. Bush.
Whatever the politics of the moment may be, national attitudes are surely changing. A psychology of hardship is overtaking even the bread-and-circus blandishments of the Cheez Doodle / infotainment / professional sports matrix of idiocy that the sociopathic corporate axis-of-evil operates to take advantage of ordinary human weakness. Soon, the public will lack the resources even for these tawdry comforts, and God knows what they’ll turn to for solace then.
A large part of Mr. Obama’s appeal as a candidate last year had to with presenting himself as an intelligent adult — as opposed to a parent figure (or a crazy old uncle in the case of John McCain). But so far, apart from his personal charm and good looks, his adult persona is that of an actuary — someone who can read charts, parse figures, and report them down the line for other people to draw conclusions . What he lacks at the moment is the very thing that history might foist on him: a sense that life is tragic and history is merciless and that sometimes we have to do the hard things that times require of us.
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