Wednesday, March 24, 2010

AN ETHICAL PRESIDENT? OBAMA, LINCOLN AND THE HEALTH CARE VICTORY

AN ESSAY

While the moment is fresh, I must write a few words about the monumental health care reform bill that passed Congress this week. It is really quite a surprising--and inspiring--development. I had to temper my usual cynicism when I realized that the United States actually took a serious step toward reforming its health insurance system. Although President Obama always said he wanted to change health care, I gradually lost faith that he could penetrate furious Republican resistance. But against all prognostications, he did penetrate the resistance. He may have won only by a small margin. Nonetheless, Obama's principled win over private health insurance companies is unprecedented in modern American history.

Still, I am not writing about the health care bill today per se. I am not going to exhaustively discuss its intricacies, loopholes or missed opportunities. True, it is not fundamental reform. It does not create a European-style "single-payer" government-run health insurance program that guarantees coverage to every citizen as a matter of right. Nonetheless, as President Obama noted, it is "major" reform. It regulates private health insurance companies in significant ways. It prevents them from refusing to cover people with "pre-existing medical conditions" (ie, "most people"). And it mandates that everyone obtain health insurance. Uninsured Americans (including me) will benefit because the legislation provides extremely low-priced coverage from a "high-risk, government-supported" insurance company. In other words, health care won't be free for uninsured people. But it will be close to it.

For almost a century, no President has achieved such meaningful reform to American health care. And it is not just the legislation's substance that bears mention. In my view, the most memorable thing about Obama's health care victory is the ethical manner in which he conducted himself throughout the debate.

Public faith in American politicians is virtually nonexistent. People expect them to lie, hoodwink, steal, gladhand and enrich themselves at public expense. They expect politicians to sacrifice all their principles to save their jobs. When a politician says something, the natural response is to assume that he will do the opposite. In short, most people think that ethics is completely foreign to Washington politics. Promises mean nothing. People expect politicians to break them as soon as the water gets hot. In a word, people are extremely cynical about politicians in America.

But then along came Obama. In 2008, he won a landslide victory by promising "change we can believe in." He seemed a breath of fresh air in the noxious political marshland, a man who did not seem ready to engage in backroom dealing or pork barreling. He talked about principles and truth. He was a "white knight;" he was an uncorrupted soul. Although cynical Americans always have a hard time dropping their natural suspicion about politicians, they did when they elected Obama. They really thought that Obama meant what he said. They thought he would hold to his promises. He promised to reform health care.

In 2009, President Obama began the push for health care reform. Despite his good intentions, mean-spirited Republican resistance undermined his popularity. As the year wore on--and as the economy continued to falter--even Democrats began to question whether Obama could get anything done. They wondered whether all his campaign promises had just been rhetorical fluff. Republicans caricatured Obama as a "law professor," a man who thought too much and did too little. Critics castigated him for being "too polite for Washington." They blamed him for giving too much deference to opposing arguments. In other words, he was too weak to survive Washington's ruthless, dog-eat-dog political atmosphere.

Yet President Obama stayed true to his heart. He did not turn into a conniving Washington technocrat. No, he stood by his promises. He swore to push through health reform no matter the political cost. He did not care whether his commitment to his word would cost him a second term. He said he would fight for health reform. So he kept fighting. And he did not become an ogre in the process, either. He retained his composed decorum, even as Republicans hyperventilated around him and spread outrageous horror stories about "Obamacare."

Obama's fidelity to his own word paid off this week. Despite all the tempests and scares in Congress over the past few months, both the House and Senate passed a substantial reform bill. Although every vote along the way split sharply down party lines, the reform effort pressed forward. Something larger was at work beyond mere politics. Obama's commitment to his word seemed to vault Congress past its stifling political slavishness. What was it? It was the power of ethics.

It is no surprise that Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln the day before the House voted on health care reform. Obama quoted: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have." Put another way, it is always more important to do right than it is to worry about your political future. And there are deeper rewards to be gained from ethical fulfillment than mere reelection. No words could have encapsulated Obama's extraordinary commitment to ethics in Washington more poignantly.

Abraham Lincoln is the most inspiring President in American history because he was the most ethical President. He took office as the Nation faced its single worst crisis. He then transformed a War for Union into a crusade to end slavery in the United States. He did this because slavery was simply "wrong" as an ethical matter. His decision was politically unpopular. Someone assassinated him for it. But he did it because it was the ethically right thing to do. Lincoln had no personal interest in freeing the slaves. Politically, it was unnecessary. Yet he did it because he did not just care about "winning." He cared about being "true" and "living up to the light he had." That meant following ethics in his heart, not the politics that raged outside him.

Almost no President has dared to jeopardize his political future to "do the right thing." While health reform may not be as significant as ending slavery in America, President Obama nonetheless followed in Lincoln's footsteps by committing himself to an unpopular cause and risking everything to realize it. That is inspiring. And it is almost shocking, because it contradicts the comfortable cynicism most people adopt when thinking about Washington politicians. After all, can you believe what you just heard? A President is willing to risk everything to reform health care because he promised to risk everything to reform health care? You mean he actually takes his word that seriously? Can't be!

But it is, and that's what is so moving about Obama's victory. It was not just a technical victory over unfairness in health care. It was a victory of ethics over politics. It was a victory of principle over expediency. Obama pushed health care because he said he would. That is almost unprecedented in modern American political history. And it is even more inspiring that he did not let the "turkeys get him down" along the way. He kept his composure. He maintained his respect and dignity. He remained a "law professor," no matter how much people ridiculed him for it.

He didn't just care about winning. Rather, he was "bound to be true." And suddenly I find myself with an anomaly: Ethics just prevailed in Washington. That makes it harder for me to scowl and wax cynical about America.

Now, I'm actually inclined to smile. I feel strangely justified today. I love it when ethical people prevail, even if just for a day.

As I have always said, there is more to life than winning games.

2 comments:

Timoteo said...

What is sad is how deep the "I've got mine, don't care about your situation" attitude in America runs. I am at a loss to explain the hysterical opposition to this bill any other way.

angelshair said...

Yes, I was very (respectfully and happily) surprised to see (finally!) a president standing for what he believed in with the risk of loosing his electorate.