This fall a Maryland Institute of Art graduate launched a public art project called Postcards to Obama. She put people’s messages to President Obama on the Internet and sent the cards to the White House. It was truly as simple a project as one could dream up, and it was so powerful; we printed up a bunch for different classrooms at my kids’ school and I loved reading everyone’s hopes for this next administration (Remy’s: change the National Anthem to This Land is Your Land). More than simply a shift change was the sense that kids identified with all Barack Obama himself has to offer us: his barrier breaking, his ability to articulate hopes and dreams, and his wonderful family embarking upon the adventure with him. In these dog days of August, I’m trying to remember how much I cried in November and again on Inauguration Day. The mere fact he stood there moved so many people so profoundly (but of course, it was so much greater than a mere fact). I cried because I dreamed.
It’s astonishing to me how quickly such high hopes become battered. I’ve been watching—place jaw onto floorboard—as the health care debate is not unraveling, but imploding. It is not that I no longer trust Obama wants health care for all. I know he does. I don’t understand exactly how the Democrats decided to cede majority for bipartisanship and then bipartisanship for a team of six at the deciders’ table (half-Republican, half-Democrat). To my mind, that’s tossing a majority away. I do understand that fairness and equity are up against two extremely powerful forces (forces that are joined, not by ideology exactly, but a fateful marriage of convenience) and those are the very rich, very powerful insurance industry and the far-right “fringe.” And I believe this marriage of convenience fueled a fast descent from “socialism,” to “death panels,” to “Nazism.” It also ignited—or was ignited by—violence, much more likely the latter. As Frank Rich so eloquently and persuasively articulates in his New York Times’ column “The Guns of August,” the threats—people openly wielding guns outside town halls—are terrifying because extreme violence from the right is a demonstrable pattern when liberals take control. He notes a “simmering undertone of violence” began in October when Sarah Palin started to use words like “treason” in relation to candidate Obama. With the slaying of Dr. George Tiller marking the beginning of summer, these menacing dog day threats with guns are simply more threats, not from-scratch new ones.
Indeed, Rich reminds us that the violence has been building—alarmingly so, according to various sources—since long before the health care debate took center stage: “No, the biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change. As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, ‘What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world — now overwhelmingly technical and complex — that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.’”
It’s impossible to neglect how critical access to health care is, most especially those being marginalized by shifts in the marketplace and the tumbling economy, and how the tumbling economy—for most of us, Main Street v Wall Street—would begin to correct itself if we had more accessible, less bloated by corporate interests greedy for profits, health care.
In contemplating how Obama has thus far handled the economy and health care, Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times' column of disheartened Obama supporters: “I hear almost daily from men and women who voted enthusiastically for Mr. Obama but are feeling disappointed. They feel that the banks made out like bandits in the bailouts, and that the health care initiative could become a boondoggle. Their biggest worry is that Mr. Obama is soft, that he is unwilling or incapable of fighting hard enough to counter the forces responsible for the sorry state the country is in.”
Herbert continues, “People want more from Mr. Obama. They want him to be their champion.”
For reasons from who he is—the biracial son of a single mother and African father with organizing roots on Chicago’s South Side—to what he says, Obama inspires faith and loathing. He’s this for reasons that are personal to him, and he’s this because of how he’s placed himself in—in the midst of forces like power and greed and racism that are all much, much bigger than any one person or administration—and it’s not a walk along a wide boulevard but a precarious high wire traverse. Although I am not sure how—between the economic bailout and health care debate and gun control and civility and free speech—our country emerges with the masses’ interests prevailing ahead of corporate interests. What’s more, there must be to be a firm hand eschewing violence, without stripping t-shirts of participants at bogus “town halls.” It seems clear to me that a tonal change—either ignoring the malicious spewing (place fingers in ears and just keep talking) or firmly saying no to such hatred—is in order. Saying no to corporate interests and the DC politicos in cahoots with them seems nearly impossible (and necessary). Although I’ve never walked an actual tightrope, it’s pretty clear that keeping eyes ahead and trusting one’s feet are critical to crossing the wire from such a height successfully. And President Obama is on the tightrope, with no option for walking on the ground again until he reckons with these issues.
To pass the tightrope test, President Obama has to persuade us that health care for all—even if it does compromise the range of options for some, in some situations—is still preferable to a system that bankrupts so many people and doesn’t reach so many more. There is a trade-off, but just like the banks, we all (not the wealthiest percentile) will feel better if help is spread more equitably. The safety net, cast wide, will inevitably ease a situation that has gone unchecked and become untenable. My brief (eighteen-month) experience using England’s National Health Care system—including two trimesters of pregnancy with my first child—was this: when everyone receives care, the attitude toward health care is—because it can be—more relaxed. There seemed to be less triage, more well care. Put another way: the bowls were half-full rather than half-empty. I know not everyone got exactly what was most desired, but there was, at least theoretically, care for all.
Regardless of the fact that hatred began building before Obama took office, racism seems entwined—for now—with the birthers and deathers. Let’s hope for more of that calm, stern Obama speaking out against racism and meantime, I hope the tolerance around guns near the President plummets to zero.
If I were to write a postcard to Obama today, here's what I'd put: “I hope you stand up against greed. I hope you stand up against racism. I hope you stand FOR equality and equity and a just world. You know that justice can prevail, and justice must prevail.”