Grassroots Gone Dry

Health care reform activists protest outside the office of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, urging her to support single-payer health care legislation, on May 29 in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)

A year ago, Barack Obama, through an impressive new-school grassroots campaign, mobilizing young people via the Internet and text messaging, was able to stir up a democratic base of people who were eager for change. All utopian slogans and rhetoric aside, he ignited citizens who really did want to see reform on a number of core issues. Seven months into his presidency, what has happened to that fervor he helped create?

Many people who voted for Obama may have felt that we needed just to get him into office and then he would work his magic, using his majority in Congress and the momentum generated by the November elections to push through the changes he promised during the campaign. Politics is not the most invigorating subject for most Americans, so it is not surprising that activism has sputtered out. But while our backs have been turned, this administration has been showing signs of falling short in big ways, and someone needs to give them a push.

The two most terrifying domestic issues on the table right now—terrifying because of the shortcomings in the proposed bills—are health care reform and climate change. In both cases, we are seeing Obama make crippling compromises that render the resulting measures completely insufficient to the country's, the planet's, needs.

With health care, the administration made a baffling concession right out of the gate in not even trying for a single-payer system. A single-payer system, when looked at by anyone whose pockets are not lined by insurance companies (who are spending $1.4 million a day lobbying to keep the industry broken), is quite simply the answer to bringing the health care industry back into the realm of fiscal sanity and putting the United States on par with other civilized nations. (The United States spends, per capita, more than double the average of the 30 democratic countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.) But none of the bills floating around in the House and Senate committees right now would introduce a single-payer system. Either as a preemptive bargaining chip, or because such a bill was not expected to pass, single-payer was left off the table.

Representative Anthony Weiner of New York recently made a compelling case for single-payer financing on MSNBC, pointing out that Medicare has a 4 percent overhead, whereas private insurance companies are mired in 30 percent overhead. Medicare is not profit driven, whereas private insurance pays out huge amounts on advertising and corporate bonuses. The director of Medicare "makes $150,000," Weiner said. "The director of my insurance company makes $4 million. Why does that make any sense? It's indefensible." Weiner's ability to make his case in plain English, without wavering, is unfortunately the kind of leadership that has been absent with health care initiatives.

Blue dog democrats, like Senator Max Baucus of Montana (who has received $2.9 million in campaign contributions from the health care industry), have managed to mangle the proposed bills beyond their original purposes, possibly gutting a public option and implementing a list of mandates that do far more good for special interests than they do for sick people. Matt Taibbi wrote a comprehensive, scathing report in Rolling Stone that outlines in horrifying detail just how counterproductive the process has been. "In a legislative sense," Taibbi said, "the bad ideas are already in the barn, and the solutions are fenced off in the fields, hoping to get in." Meanwhile, the right has been successful in diverting and clouding public attention with ridiculous cries of socialism and "death panels," with the media offering little help.

While Obama lacks the audacity or the leverage to push a viable health care alternative through, there should be mobs of people rallying behind the few like Weiner who are actually fighting for real reform. Those mobs, or even an audible outcry, are decidedly absent.

The climate crisis does not look much better. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who in 1981 published the first major scientific paper that showed that global warming is man-made, warns that climate change is happening even faster and with more devastating consequences than scientists predicted. "The dangerous level of CO2—the amount that could push us past the point of no return—is lower than we thought," Hansen said. "We're in danger of shooting up to a much higher temperature, comparable to the warmings that caused mass extinctions in the past. If we do, we will lose all the ice in the Arctic, and the permafrost will melt, releasing even more greenhouse gasses. Once that happens, the dynamics of the climate system will take over, and then we're out of luck."

Hansen puts a lot of weight on coal emissions. He states plainly that, if we phase out coal emissions over the next 20 years, "then you have a solvable problem. But if you let coal use continue, things just go off the chart, and you can't solve the problem." The climate bill that Congress is considering, with its cap-and-trade guidelines, would not phase out coal. Instead, the plan would actually lock in the approval to build new coal-fired plants and basically guarantee that coal emissions will continue. What Obama is doing, Hansen said, "is in no way adequate—and we're very unlikely to get another president who will be more likely to take the steps that are needed. The fate of the planet is in his hands."

Obama got off to a good start with climate change when he appointed Steven Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997, as his secretary of energy. Chu, who has spoken like a visionary about spreading seas of solar panels across the desert, is an advocate of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. But being an excellent scientist and professor doesn't mean he has the political muscle to bend the Department of Energy and all its bureaucracy to his will. At this point, Europe is far ahead of us in green initiatives—with solar panels already lining walls along the highways—while coal companies here are literally removing mountaintops. National climate change has been strongly supported by the European Union, with most of its member states having enacted national climate protection plans, while the United States has still not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

It's true that Obama inherited an utter mess, and, in his defense, he has taken action on many fronts at once, but what's being done on these key issues is not enough. Obama's gift for diplomacy is invaluable abroad, but it is hurting his agenda at home. If he doesn't take a stronger stance on health care and climate change, if he continues to make compromises, then he and the democratic majority in Congress will waste this fleeting opportunity to make a difference on these pressing realities.

If left to their own devices, Congress will likely pass legislation that does not represent the interest of its constituents. It can do this easily when those constituents stand idly by, passively consenting. Protestors recently marched on a coal plant in Washington, D.C. And activists crashed one of Baucus' hearings in May when single-payer interests were not represented. But such civil resistance has been sparse. It certainly has not stormed the windows of these private meetings like it could be doing.

Noam Chomsky wrote, "It is not unusual for those at the wrong end of the club to have a clearer understanding of the world in which they live." In many cases, this would be right. In the case of American citizens, however, many are either ignorant or indifferent to the calamitous situation they are currently in. Too many stopped pumping their fists after the inauguration, and the streets have gone quiet. Too many have pulled the blinds while the seas outside, quite literally, rise.

Joshua Pringle is a novelist and journalist whose work has been published by Queen City Forum Magazine, Worldpress.org, Southeast Ohio Magazine and several other news publications.

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