Sunday, September 06, 2009

Dear President Obama: It's time to throw an elbow

This is an open letter to the President, submitted via email. I don't expect that he will read it, but since I consider the "open letter" blog post/newspaper column construction to be weak unless it is submitted to the named recipient, he's getting it anyway.

One among the tens of thousands of communications received by the White House every day.

Anyway, on to the letter...

Dear President Obama,

Later this week you will address a joint session of Congress regarding health care reform. After a summer of town hall hysterics, sinking poll numbers, and unsuccessful tactical shifts designed to appease Republicans and fearful and/or corporate-friendly Democrats in Congress, something is needed.

A big part of your problems this summer, as I see it anyway, has been your Administration's attempts to negotiate with those who have no interest in changing a health insurance system that is less about caring for patients and more about enhancing the profit margins of deep-pocketed campaign contributors. In short, you've been trying to negotiate with schoolyard bullies in three-piece suits.

As any new kid in the schoolyard quickly learns, the best way to deal with a bully isn't by negotiating, pleading, or even running - it's standing.

As in standing up and standing your ground.

In the third season of the television show "The West Wing", an episode aired that told a story about the legendary center of the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell. The story was that Russell was getting eaten alive in the paint as he was playing by the rules but opposing centers were doing whatever they could to beat him. He asked the equally legendary Celtics coach and GM, Red Auerbach, what he could do. Red advised him to throw an elbow in a nationally televised game, and they wouldn't mess with him again.

The story may or may not be apocryphal (I could only find references to it in relation to its inclusion in The West Wing," but either way, the point of the story is perfectly applicable to the current situation.

You are getting pummelled from all sides and are trying to reason with those who have no incentive to be reasonable.

They need to be made aware that the President, as the head of the Executive Branch, holds political power that is at least the equal of their own.

It's time to get the attention of those who assail you, whether those who directly attack you or those who would simply hold you back because they fear change.

It's time stand up and stand your ground.

It's time to show them that you are the President of the United States.

It's time to throw an elbow.

Now, what form that elbow will take isn't known to me - I'm not a Washington insider, knowledgeable in the nuanced application of practical political power inside the Beltway.

I can hazard some guesses, though.

My suggestion would involve some of your senior staffers sitting with some Congressional Republican leaders at a negotiating table during an impasse, and one of the staffers casually mentioning that since health care reform isn't going to go through, the personnel who had been detailed to work on setting up the new health care structure will now be freed up to work in other areas of government, like a Department of Justice project examining campaign finance and lobbyist reports.

OK, so that isn't subtle and you probably can come up with something far more suitable to serve as your "elbow."

Just don't make it so subtle that those on the receiving end of your elbow don't realize that they just took one in the gut.

Something truly a little more circumspect would be called for when dealing with those in your own party who may be honestly afraid that if they support a public option as part of health care reform, they'll lose their seats in next year's elections.

Perhaps you could remind them, if you haven't done so already, that after the Clinton Administration's attempts to reform health care in the United States, the 1994 elections saw a massive Republican wave that carried them to their first majority in the House in generations.

And you could further remind them that any members who are legitimately vulnerable due to voting *for* real health care reform will be just as vulnerable to a Republican wave even if they vote *against* reform. "Waves" aren't particularly discriminating.

In any event, this week could be the "make or break" week for your entire presidency. When you make your plans for your speech and for your approach to health care reform going forward, remember that standing up and losing to the bullies still beats abjectly surrendering to them. A loss on this can be recovered from; a surrender will become the lasting legacy of your presidency.

And standing up could be the best path to victory, both for you and for the millions of Americans who support health care reform.



P.S. - Jen at Mindless Mumblings of a Martyr Mom has her take on this topic (based off a Bill Moyers op/ed video) here; the full transcript of Moyers' piece is here, courtesy (hat tip to David Safier at Blog for Arizona). Jon Talton, formerly the best writer at the Arizona Republic and now in Seattle, offers his rather blunt assessment here.


Thane Eichenauer said...

I shouldn't be surprised (but am) that in a game of political violence that suggestions to use metaphorical violence and rule breaking would be encouraged.

I am disappointed that in the 13 years since the Clinton Health Plan was proposed that the adherents of greater government control of health care can't suggest a better methodology than 'throwing an elbow'.

Of course if I read "What Changes and What Does Not" a month ago I wouldn't be surprised today.

cpmaz said...

As you point out, it's a metaphor. It has to do letting the other players in the game know that the biggest name in the game (always the biggest target in the game, whatever the game is) can dish it out in the clinches even better than the would-be backbiters.

In addition, "throwing an elbow" isn't something I am suggesting to be added to a health care reform package.

It's something that I am suggesting be added to the White House's repertoire when it comes to methods of dealing with Congress.

Barack Obama was elected to be one of the good guys, not one of the nice guys.

It's time for him to realize that.