Memories may be fading, but I’m sure most of you have some vague recollection of last year’s presidential election.
Come on, you remember. Lots of bad TV commercials. Debates that weren’t. New and vibrant versus old and tired. America turned blue. The first African-American president. Attractive wife. Cute kids. Election night speech in front of Greek columns. Hope. The “dream” come true.
Hell, there was even a parade in January.
Yeah, that election.
I’m willing to wager that like me, most of you voted for Barack Obama. We did so because we craved change; a shift of power from the war mongering, detainee torturing, job exporting, business-butt-kissing Republicans to a champion of the working class.
I’ll also wager you thought that’s what we got when Barack Obama raised his right hand and took the oath of office. That’s why we shared a sense of excitement and exhilaration. Things would be different now that Washington was controlled by a young, strong progressive president with a mandate in his pocket and a Democratic Congress at his beck and call.
Health care reform. A solution to the foreclosure crisis. Assualt weapons banned. Cheaper student loans. It was all coming and coming rapidly.
Uh, not so fast.
As recent events—or lack thereof—have demonstrated, you can elect all the new presidents you want, but that doesn’t mean things are going to change. Because, it seems the people — that’s you and me — don’t run Washington. All those government buildings? Not ours. The millions of federal employees whose salaries we pay? They don’t work for us.
How do I know? Dick Durbin said so yesterday on the floor of the Senate. Venting his frustration when 11 Democrats joined Republicans to kill legislation giving federal bankruptcy judges the power to renegotiate the terms of predatory mortgages and thus help middle-class families keep their homes, the Illinois senator did something strange and wondrous: he told the unvarnished truth:
“And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”
They own it. They do. Need more proof? OK, let’s talk about Sallie Mae, the quasi-federal agency that guarantees student loans made by private banks. That Obama guy, the one we elected, he wants to do away with Sallie Mae because doing so will free up $94 billion that can then be given directly to students in the form of Pell Grants.
Great idea. Who could possibly oppose it? One guess. Did you say banks? You win. And who did the banks hire to lobby on their behalf? Tony Podesta, a major Democratic fundraiser whose brother John served as Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff and head of the Obama transition team.
According the New York Times, Mr. Podesta already has plenty of Democratic allies in Congress, including legislators who represent districts where Sallie Mae has offices. As a result a simple, smart idea — giving student loan money directly to needy students instead of filtering it through banks that make billions for pushing paper around — may be dead.
It turns out, however, that the banks aren’t the sole owners of the house of government. I guess it’s kind of a time share thing. One of the co-owners, and I’m sure this won’t come as a huge shock, is the health insurance industry. Access to high quality, affordable health care was one of the primary issues in last year’s campaign. John McCain had a goofy scheme that would have taxed employee benefits and protected the huge profits of insurers. Barack Obama didn’t really have a plan, but we trusted that when push came to shove he’d back real reform that would hold down costs and provide coverage for the more than 45 million Americans who don’t have it.
One way to do that, and one concept he did embrace, was the formation of a government operated health care plan that would compete with the for-profit insurance industry. While not quite the single payer system progressives yearn for, it was a start.
So, when the president convened a health care summit to tackle the issue who dominated the conversation? Karen Ignani, the front person for the AFL-CIO during the 1993 health care reform effort—until she turned traitor and went to work for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group that represents the nation’s for profit health insurance companies.
It appears that AHIP isn’t thrilled about the prospect of competing with the government. Not good for insurers’ bottom lines, you see. So they proposed other ways of reducing costs that experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, have repeatedly said won’t work. That doesn’t matter to Ms. Ignani and the companies she shills for. They, and other groups that sell insurance including AARP, aren’t interested in reform, they’re only interested in running out the clock, just as they did in 1993.
Did our champion, our working-class hero, stand up, smite Ms. Ignani, and tell her that universal coverage, not preserving insurance industry profits, was the goal of his administration? Well, no. And he wouldn’t let anyone else do it, either. Congressman John Conyers and Dr. Oliver Fein, two long-time advocates of the single payer solution who were reluctantly admitted to the meeting after first being denied invitations, were expressly forbidden to speak.
The President has been similarly unwilling to tangle with another group of longtime Washington squires: the NRA. Despite the fact that once-banned assault weapons were recently used to kill four cops in San Francisco, three in Pittsburgh, and are the weapons of choice of both domestic psychopaths and Mexican drug lords, the administration has signaled that it’s not willing to throw its weight behind an effort to once again prohibit guns that have only one purpose: killing human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible.
While some progressives are growing restive with Mr. Obama’s timidity, I’m willing to give him a break. After all, he just moved in and wants to show he’ll be a good tenant. And he’s busy doing other things, like fixing the economy by doling out hundreds of billions to the bankers who screwed it up in the first place. But sooner or later he’s going to realize that while bankers, insurers, big oil, gun nuts, and the pharmaceutical industry may own the building, working families issued his four year lease. If he wants an extension in 2012 he’ll need to invite us over for a chat—no matter how uncomfortable it makes the landlords.