What was in the health care bill that passed Congress?  Health care exchanges were in, multi-plan markets for those who had to buy coverage on their own.  Tax incentives for small business that covered their employees—they were in.  Anti-abortion restrictions made the cut.  A provision to close the “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug coverage was in.  Direct student loans and increases in Pell Grant scholarships were in.

In fact, the reason the legislation ran to so many pages was that it was less a single plan than a collage of hundreds of health care ideas and plans.  What was in the health care bill?  What wasn’t in the bill?

A public option wasn’t in. Almost two-thirds of all Americans supported single-payer health insurance in pre-election polls, a percentage that must have been even higher among those who voted for him.   But from the beginning of health care’s tortuous path to passage, President Obama was never more than lukewarm toward giving the government the larger role many of his staunchest supporters favored.  They were central to his election.  But Obama made no effort to ensure serious consideration of single-payer, and gave only tepid support to even watered-down public-option approaches.

Obama’s decision not to fight for the public option, itself a fallback position for those who really favored a single-payer system, was by no means the only disappointment in Obama’s first year for constituencies without whose support Obama might not have won either the primaries or the general election.

Union support also played an important role in getting Obama the nomination, although his record on union issues was not as strong as John Edwards’s or even Hillary Clinton’s, and union contributions and manpower helped him win key states in November.  Yet the labor movement’s top priority, card-check (a change in labor law that would certify union representation based on signed cards without a secret-ballot vote) is no closer to passage than it was a year ago.

African Americans, too, were crucial to Obama’s election.  But he hasn’t satisfied their top priorities either.  Recently, the Washington Post reported that African American leaders like Jesse Jackson are frustrated that Obama has not put forward policies targeting high unemployment in the black community.  Obama, for his part, does not deny the basis for such complaints, saying that “The most important thing I can do for the African American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again.”

These groups have been at the heart of Democratic Party politics since the New Deal.  They were critical to Barack Obama’s election, and they may be critical to his re-election.  Why do they now find themselves on the outside looking in?  Why, in fact, does Obama seem to see constituencies like these not as special friends but special interests, and the past attention his party has paid to them as part of what ails the Democratic Party and the democratic system?

The title of this piece, “Young Man Obama,” is a play on the title of Eric Erickson’s psychoanalytic biography of Martin Luther, Young Man Luther.  As he did in his Gandhi’s Truth, Erickson Young Man Luther traced his subject’s world-changing deeds to events of his adolescence.

Perhaps we might gain an insight into Obama’s politics by considering the years of his adolescence, not so much the events of his personal life as the events of the nation and world in which he grew up.

It isn’t a matter of age per se.  Obama was 47 when he won the presidency in 2008, a year older than Bill Clinton was when he was elected in November of 1992.

But Clinton—and for that matter his two Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson—belonged to an earlier political era.  Clinton was born in 1946, and grew up in the shadow of World War II.  Carter and Johnson were not only old enough to have lived through the World War II, but to have experienced as well the Depression and its aftermath.

They remembered the labor movement as a movement, a movement that made it possible for the workers it represented to live middle-class lives, and provided the political organization and muscle that helped pass Medicare over the opposition of doctors and hospitals.

The federal government they knew was one that accepted historic challenges, acted boldly to confront them, and often succeeded.  It was a government that fought the Depression with public works and public service jobs and founded the SEC to put Wall Street on a shorter leash.  It was a government that defeated the Nazis and won World War II.

And they lived through the great days of the civil rights movement—Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, Little Rock, and the March on Washington

Obama was born in 1961.  His parents were too young to remember the government’s response to the Depression or World War II.  The heroism of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall were all history before Obama entered high school.  The labor movement he would have read about was the one whose high wages, restrictive work rules and benefits were widely blamed for the Big Three automakers’ unpreparedness for competition from Japanese imports.

And the sum-of-its-parts Democratic Party he came to know was not the party that held the White House for 28 or the 36 years from 1932 to 1968, but the party that controlled the presidency for just four of the 28 years that followed.

There are those for whom the waning influence of these historic political actors comes not a moment too soon.  For them, organized labor and the civil rights movement are spent forces and government activism is a flawed answer to challenges that have radically changed.

There’s a certain superficial plausibility to this disdain. Not only is organized labor at low ebb in terms of the number of employees it represents, but labor’s traditional base of power, the American manufacturing sector, is a diminishing part of the economy.  The great civil rights battles have been fought and won: African Americans can vote, hold office, sleep, eat, and work where they choose.  An African American sits in the White House.  And government seems clumsy and paralyzed, often incapable of passing legislation or carrying out its own policies.  Isn’t it time to leave these spent forces behind us and move on to new solutions to the new problems we face?

Actually, no.  The problems to which these movements were a response have changed, but they have not disappeared.  And the forces themselves, although they have fallen on hard times, still have the potential to be effective once again.

Take organized labor.  Many of the issues that organized labor fought for and won—the minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, the very right to organize unions—are now well-established policy.

But in a country that has spent years trying to increase the number of people with health insurance, it’s surely a point in labor’s favor that employees who are represented by unions are far more likely to have health insurance, and more likely to have adequate health insurance, than those in unrepresented workplaces.  In a country increasingly polarized between the high-paid and low-paid, it is also of some interest that unionized workers earn higher wages.  And unlike federally-mandated one-size-fits-all increases in benefits and wages, collective bargaining agreements are hammered out employer by employer, with the size of the workplace, geographical location and overall health of the company playing important parts.  These outcomes could be realized, moreover, without breathtaking federal expenditures.  All it would take is the appointment of National Labor Relations Board members committed to affording unions a level playing field on which union representation battles can be fought.

When it comes to addressing issues of specific importance to African Americans, Obama’s seeming reluctance may be understandable, but it is still misguided.  Perhaps he and his advisors feel that as the first African American president, actions directed at black-white disparities might seem like showing favoritism toward his own group (although few of his 43 predecessors seem to have worried about policies that advantaged their racial group).

But sad to stay, for all the undeniable racial progress over the past fifty years, significant disparities still exist.  Yes, there is an African American in the White House and a strong representation in the House of Representatives.  But Obama’s elevation to the presidency left a single African American in the Senate, Obama’s marginally legitimate Illinois successor; and when Roland Burris leaves after the next election, he will leave the same number of black senators that held office when the Voting Rights Act was passed 45 years ago: none.  Similarly, the nation now has just one African American governor—it has had only three in its history—and when Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is defeated in November (his approval rating is currently in the thirties), there will once again be none.

The disparity is not limited to those in high public office.  In 1970, for example, black men earned 69% of what white men earned; in 2006, the number was 73%.  The wage gap between white and black women was 10.5 percentage points; in 2006, 9.9%.  Without action that addresses the factors that cause these disparities, like education and employment discrimination, Obama’s pledge to “do for the African American community…the same thing I…do for the American community” will leave these gaps and many others in place.

As for active government, we are completing a thirty-year experiment with government staying on the sidelines of the experiment.  Deregulation yielded some genuine benefits.  Air travel is far more affordable than it was under regulatory regime than ended in the ‘seventies.  The breakup of AT&T and the deregulation of telecommunications ushered in, or at least accelerated the arrival of, the cornucopia of services we now enjoy.

But whatever the benefits of governmental economic diffidence may have been in the ‘seventies, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, larger, more economically diverse, and more interconnected businesses have accumulated and exerted power that market pressures alone are insufficient to constrain.

President Obama has spent his first year in office sidelining many of his natural allies in an effort to appear to govern, not in the interest of particular constituencies but in the interest of the country at large.  But all too often, his efforts have not benefited the general public interest but have simply served just another set of special interests like banks and pharmaceutical companies whose idea of the ideal economy and society is far different than the vision that Obama shares with traditional Democratic constituencies.

Perhaps in his second year he might draw closer to the destination he desires by broadening his historical focus and traveling in the company of those who are headed in the same direction.


  1. Leslie
    April 1st, 2010 | 6:28 am


  2. Bill
    April 1st, 2010 | 9:14 am

    Wonderfully gentle in its sad, and sadly important, criticism.

  3. Mary
    April 1st, 2010 | 2:05 pm

    “As for active government, we are completing a thirty-year experiment with government staying on the sidelines of the experiment. Deregulation yielded some genuine benefits. Air travel is far more affordable than it was under regulatory regime than ended in the ‘seventies.” I would add that today, air travel is also far less appealing or
    uncomfortable, with less service and more aggravation, smaller seats, no meals, no magazines, no pillows or blankets in tourist class, longer waiting times, the possibility of whole days spent on the tarmac or in some form of yet-to-be devised “holding pens” where passengers will be kept when delays are encountered and regulations require that they be allowed off their flights within a certain amount of time. And the more “affordable” flights now charge for baggage checked, and I’m sure we’ll soon be charged by item for every item brought on board, as soon as some “bean counter” at an airline realizes they can charge us.

    “The breakup of AT&T and the deregulation of telecommunications ushered in, or at least accelerated the arrival of, the cornucopia of services we now enjoy.”
    I know I appear to be and probably am a “Luddite” about this, but I long to return to the days of “Ma Bell” instead of the myriad of “family and friends network” plans and new phone/mini computers we now have. I still have the need to simply make or receive a simple phone call, which seems less and less possible unless one has the resources to purchase one of the fancier models. I lament the loss of the ubiquitous pay phone at nearly every corner and outside every gas station. Come to think of it, I lament the loss of what was once what we knew as a “gas station.”

    I also lament the loss of what was our federal government with civil servants who actually seemed to be just that, “civil,” in their dealings with the public they had signed on to serve. Today’s government agencies are ruled by contractors whose sole goal is to make a profit with no sense of the reason why each of these agencies was established in the first place. Because of ceilings on federal employment, every agency has a shadow staff of contractors far larger than its staff of federal employees, who are still always blamed for all problems. Yes, I am a curmudgeonly “Luddite” retired civil servant and proud of it. And whether he is young Obama or Old Obama, he still gets my vote.

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