Thursday, September 10, 2009

Selling America out

I had intended to write a little today about Obama's health care speech, but Francis Beckwith pretty much said all that I had to say, better than I could. Why has presidential oratory turned into nothing more than a laundry list of promises that no one in their right minds ever expects the president in question actually to keep? This is not a problem that originated with Obama; I recall tuning out in disgust during some Republican presidents' "State of the Union" addresses or similar speeches, because these seemed to be the same long litany of promises made during the campaign and not yet kept, usually for some reason involving the eeeevillll opposition. You can bet that if President Obama doesn't succeed in getting a health care bill passed, the blame will be placed on Republicans in general, and specifically town hall attendees, Joe Wilson, and the weirdly resurrected Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.

Analysis of the speech shows many problems between what the president actually wants and a little thing called reality. The most obvious of these, already discussed by many, is this part:
Here's what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period. And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize. Part of the reason I faced a trillion dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for – from the Iraq War to tax breaks for the wealthy. I will not make that same mistake with health care.
That radical right-wing organization called the Congressional Budget Office disagrees that the president's plan (and I'm not the only one to wonder which one, exactly) won't add to the deficit; see here for one example:

The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), also has taken a leading role in the Finance Committee negotiations. Yesterday, when Elmendorf appeared before Conrad's committee to testify about the nation's long-term budget problems, Conrad focused his questions on the House and Senate committee measures, which were drafted without Republican input.

"I'm going to really put you on the spot," Conrad said. "From what you have seen from the products of the committees that have reported, do you see a successful effort being mounted to bend the long-term cost curve?"

Elmendorf responded: "No, Mr. Chairman." Although the House plan to cover the uninsured, for example, would add more than $1 trillion to federal health spending over the next decade, according to the CBO, it would trim about $500 billion from existing programs -- increasing federal health spending overall.

Some provisions of the bill have the potential to trim spending further, Elmendorf said, but "the changes that we have looked at so far do not represent the sort of fundamental change, the order of magnitude that would be necessary, to offset the direct increase in federal health costs that would result from the insurance coverage proposals."

These sorts of realities don't seem to matter much when presidents give speeches. The whole point of a presidential speech seems to be to market some idea, plan, program, action or agenda, and to use the tools of marketing to do so. Here are some examples from the speech: (you can find a good brief description of these techniques at this website).

Bandwagon: "We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people."

Simple Solutions: "Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care."

Weasel Words: "First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have. Let me repeat this: nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have." (The weasel words here are " this plan..." People aren't afraid the plan will require them to change their health insurance. They're worried that their employers will dump them on a public plan, a very real possibility.)

Testimonial: "I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death."

Presidential speeches have become little more than A Message From Our Sponsor, promising us free health care, a robust economy, cheap and painless national security, and probably whiter teeth and fresher breath, if we read the fine print. Their purpose is not to provide information or discuss hotly-debated issues; their purpose is to sweep all opposition under the rug while creating enough positive propaganda for a quick poll showing support for the president's plan--even if the polling sample skews heavily Democrat to get that result. To be fair, President Obama didn't create this reality--he is just the latest president to take advantage of it. And in these presidential speeches, the presidents of the late twentieth-early twenty-first centuries aren't really trying to sell Americans on the idea of America; they're selling America out.


Lara said...

I don't see where in the excerpt you cite (or in the linked article) it talks about increasing the deficit. (Increasing spending is not the same thing as increasing the deficit.) Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

What would have been the oppositions' alternative to this soundly reasoned plan, spelled out in an oratorial style that appealed to a great many in attendance? Can one deny that there is a problem? Can one deny that a majority of the problem was caused by rampant displays of politically wrested greed by financial institutions know as health insurers? Can one deny that the responsibility to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry is a function of our US government as spelt out in the introductory statements to the Constitution? Can one deny the number of bankruptcies due to escalating medical costs, and burgeoning medical expenses for which no single tax-paying individual has recourse to obtain access to either primary, secondary, or tertiary care providers (even if the individual is their own physician)? Can one deny that the present system is so huge, involving all citizens, that it cannot be 'taken' on by the average citizen? Can one deny the state of health as measured by indicators across cultures is not comparable to expenditures to attain that state of health? If health care were likened to clean air or clean water, would there be a hue and cry about whether reform measures are necessary? Dinking about nuances of words used to express the current state and what and how will be required for an overhaul might be termed nitpicking, i.e. what orangutans do to pass the time when they're not out looking for bananas i.e. when they have all the bananas they need and don't need to be doing something functional and basic.

Mike in CT said...

I think that being the President of the United States could be very easy, if all you have to do is make speeches. You don't even have to do your homework. Your opponents will make careful, reasoned arguments, citing chapter and verse in legislation and statistics. But all you have to do is make strong assertions that they are WRONG. Then make some other fantastical statement, unfounded and unsupported. And if anyone says that you are lying, they have to apologize to you. Can I get that job?

Scott W. said...

Anonymous, it's a trust issue, and the One and his government is simply unworthy of trust. Piling on genuine difficulties won't change the fact that we have a government committed to confiscation, dribbling out services, and taking a wrecking-ball approach to anything that isn't USG.

JimmyV said...

Thanks for the reminder that this is nothing new but is the same pattern of all presidents in my memory. I was so comfortable with speeches that are only bromides that I didn't even expect a rhetorical argument to be presented.

Thankfully, our faith is not in princes or principalities