Obama's Narrowing Window of Opportunity
The way I see it, President Obama has a couple of months to turn his failing administration around.
The war in Afghanistan is going south, and within a couple of weeks, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, Obama’s version of Lyndon Johnson’s General William Westmoreland, will be coming to him asking for more troops. Things are getting hairier in Iraq too.
His signature health care initiative is foundering, with Republicans working in lockstep to see to it that it fails.
Pressure is mounting for an honest probe into the criminality of the prior administration in its authorization and promotion of torture against captives--most of them innocent--in the Bush/Cheney "war" on terror.
The stock market, which by climbing back 50% from its collapse and the bottom it hit on March 9, gave the president a breather, is showing signs of exhaustion, and is likely to start sinking again, as investors realize that there is no end in sight for the recession in the real economy.
If all this continues into December, which is after all only a couple of months away, Congress will go into recess, and when it returns, it will be an election year, with all House seats up for grabs, and a third of the Senate also facing re-election. Republicans will be in an all-out campaign to reduce the Democratic majorities in both houses, with history on their side (in almost every off-year election, the party of new presidents lose support both houses of Congress).
So, what's the president got to do?
First, he needs to announce a bold peace initiative in Afghanistan. He should reject the call for more troops, and instead call for a regional peace conference--one that would include all the neighborhing countries around Afghanistan, and most significantly, the Taliban. At such a conference, he should arrange for a new government of national unity that includes the Taliban, and then get the hell out of the country. Obama can declare victory if he wants, but the main thing is to get out. Ditto for Iraq, where the US is still viewed as an occupier and is going to be forced out eventually. There is no reason to stay another day.
Second, he should declare the disfunctional and industry-polluted health reform plans in Congress dead and simply announce that by executive order, he is lowering the age for Medicare to 55, and is switching all Medicaid patients in the country over to Medicare (with the intention of lowering that age by five years ever year until all are covered), and shutting down the Medicaid program. He should then submit a bill to Congress establishing a government-owned insurance company, open to all, with no restrictions on its ability to set pricing and reimbursement rates or to negotiate discounts from hospitals, doctors and pharmacy companies. Or alternatively, the bill could enable anyone to simply buy into Medicare. He should tell Democrats and Republicans alike that any member of Congress who votes against that bill will not see any bill with her or his name on it get his signature in his remaining years in office. The government company would be phased out once Medicare covered everyone.
Finally, the president needs to announce that he is sickened by the information he has received about the prior administration's torture program, and that he is encouraging his attorney general to fully investigate it, and to prosecute to the full extent of the law anyone, no matter how high up in the military or in government, who authorized torture or who covered it up.
Congress could be expected to howl at the use of an executive order to expand Medicare, but the president could declare a national health emergency as justification, saying the recession had thrown too many people off of health insurance, and that as well, states were in dire fiscal shape and laying off workers because of the increased Medicaid burden.
Removing older workers from employers' health insurance plans would be a huge shot in the arm for struggling companies, as they are the biggest users of health care. Lifting the $400 billion cost of Medicare from state governments would free up money to prevent the layoff of state and local employees, which is threatening to stifle economic recovery.
Republicans can be expected to denounce the president for going after the Bush/Cheney administration on torture, but most Americans at this point are becoming aware of the damage that the policy has caused to the country's international reputation, and to the soldiers in the field.
Many people would also howl about bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, and Iraq, but the truth is that the vast majority of Americans are sick of both wars and would welcome an end to them.
The key to all these moves, however, is that Obama needs to explain them not in terms of saving money, but as being the right thing to do. Health care reform has to be presented as a moral imperative, not as a money saver (even though covering everyone with Medicare would be a huge net savings for everyone in the country). Ending America's foreign wars would be a huge savings, but the real reason to do it is that the US has no business being a global cop and imperialist occupier. And prosecuting torture is essential if the US is to be a nation of laws. You wouldn't know it to listen to the jaded pundits in the corporate media, but in my experience, most Americans are basically decent people, and would like to be citizens of a country that did decent things, not just things that could be justified as making "economic sense."
I'm not expecting any of this to happen, of course. This president has shown repeatedly and convincingly that he is a creature of the Establishment, not given to any bold initiatives or to challenges to the status quo. I'm just saying that these are steps that could salvage his presidency--a presidency that is seeming increasingly doomed. The corollary is that if he doesn't do these things, he will find himself with a diminished majority in November, 2010, a reinvigorated Republican opposition, a tanked economy, an angry electorate (including a lot of pissed off former supporters), and, basically, nothing to show for his whole presidency come 2012.