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Battered President Syndrome

Joy-Ann Reid

Listening to poor Robert Gibbs at his daily press briefing attempting to back away from a New York Times report that the administration may finally abandon the quest for bipartisanship and pass a healthcare reform bill with Democrats alone (Gibbs insisted that the administration is still committed to working with Republicans, including those who’ve pledged not to vote for any reform, even if they negotiated it), it occurred to me: we may be dealing with a White House in mental crisis.

Before I explain, and this is going to sound like a tangent — I once had a co-worker, years ago, who had an abusive boyfriend. They weren’t married, but had lived together, and he was extremely possessive and controlling; he didn’t want her to have friends, or even to talk to anyone on the phone, except him. Eventually, as too often is the case, the relationship turned violent. When she’d finally had enough, she moved out, and took out a restraining order. It was at that point that she and I became friends. One day, we were going to lunch in Manhattan with another co-worker, who happened to be male. He was interested in her, but hadn’t yet worked up the courage to say so. So at the time we all went out, there was absolutely nothing going on between them. Well try explaining that to her ex-boyfriend, who surprised us outside our building after apparently stalking her for days. He accosted us with a ferocity you’d normally assume was reserved for a police officer kicking down the door of a murder suspect, and while we made sure he didn’t hit her, the experience was one I could stand never to have again. A few days later, I got a call from her, saying she needed to decompress, and wanted to hang out. So off I went on the subway to meet her at her apartment, so we could catch a movie. Big mistake. No, the boyfriend didn’t show up this time, but we did get into a conversation about him. When I expressed relief that she was finally rid of him, I was treated to a lengthy defense of him as a good guy who really loved her but was “going through a lot at the time,” and the suggestion was made in no uncertain terms that I ought to mind my own damned business when it came to her man. Needless to say, we’re no longer friends. I pray things worked out for her.

I see some echoes of my former friend in Team Obama. They are like a woman who has seen the object of her affection grow meaner over time, and yet even after she’s been belittled, bruised and battered, she’s still hanging on, hoping he’ll change; holding out for the moments of goodness that she hopes will come. In real life, we alternately feel pity and scorn for such women, but nearly everyone understands that they need sustained professional help. Obama ran on “changing the tone in Washington” — a fancy way of saying “bipartisanship.” Somewhere in the course of the campaign, and the first eight months of governing, they fell in love with bipartisanship, and now, bipartisanship is kicking their ass. And yet, they still believe that the people abusing them — Republicans who have no intention of ever supporting a single initiative out of this White House, and who are playing, not to advance the debate or to reform healthcare, but to crush this president and seize back control of Congress so they can crush him even more thoroughly — are basically good guys who are just going through a lot right now.

Campaigns, and I suspect the administrations that come from them, can be insular things; prone to group-think and a kind of “with us or against us” mentality. Often, even non-compliant allies can becomes the object of frustration and anger inside the campaign bunker. I witnessed that to some extent with the Obama campaign’s sometimes testy relationship with Black media in 2008. But the healthcare debate has taken the bunker public, and it seems that the White House is indeed burrowing in for a fight, but not against the GOP. According to the Washington Post, “unnamed sources” in and around the administration are angry; not at insurance-industry-funded AstroTurfers who have turned August town halls into a three-ring circus by lying to the simple and the vulnerable; and not at right wing media outlets that are convincing alarming numbers of elderly Fox News viewers that their government is out to kill them, but rather at the “left of the left,” for insisting on that pesky, popular

(and in terms of reform, abolutely crucial,) public option. As I am one of those “public option” Democratic supporters, it’s like hanging with my former NYC gal pal all over again.


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There must be a clinical name for an administration so determined to take beatings from the bullies in the Party of No, and yet so eager to trash those who are trying to help them (Christopher Hitchens early on accused the president of weakness in that he seems “more keen on appeasing his enemies than rallying his friends.” I’m starting to fear there might, at least in the healthcare debate, be something to that.) If Gibbs, rather than the New York Times, is to be believed, even talk of “pulling the plug on grandma” by their supposed GOP negotiating partners (later walked back), and armed nuts showing up at the president’s town halls apparently won’t dissuade President Obama and his team from seeking a so-called “bipartisan solution” to healthcare reform — which can best be translated as watered-down reform that Blue Dogs think will get them re-elected by conservative southerners and rural folk — I think we’re looking at the first-ever case of a new political diagnosis: call it Battered President Syndrome. If you ask me, Obama’s got it bad.

By the way, while we’re arguing about the public option, there’s another reason why it’s so important that it be passed: well, actually there are two:

First, if the president gives it away, any bill he does pass will have been done in weakness and retreat. Such retreat will only set the stage for further bloodletting by the right when his next bill (immigration reform? Cap and trade?) comes up for debate.

Second, Barack Obama ran for president opposing the then-Hillary Clinton position that individuals should be mandated by the government to have health insurance. I wholly agreed with that stance. In my estimation, it is immoral for the government to compel any individual to buy a private product. In states like Iowa, where Mutual of Omaha holds a monopoly, such mandates are tantamount to a massive government subsidy, using individual bank accounts, of single corporations. It’s just as wrong as handing the banks billions of dollars, no strings attached. If I’m going to be forced to buy insurance, I want and indeed insist, that I have the option of giving my money essentially to me, in the form of a publicly-owned nonprofit entity, rather than to some bloodsucking insurance company. It’s bad enough that I’m forced by law to buy private auto insurance, but at least there, it is in the public interest that my car not be able to mow you down and I lack the wherewithal to make you whole financially. In the case of healthcare, we’re not talking about insuring a car, or a house or an art collection. Health insurance is, as Rep. Adam Weiner ably pointed out — insurance that essentially brings nothing to the transaction over your body, other than getting between you and your doctor.

So it’s public plan or bust, Team Obama, and you might as well get used to it. As Ricky Lake might way, take out the restraining order already and kick that jerk political boyfriend of yours to the curb.

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Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media consultant in Florida. She blogs at

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