Building on the Hopeful Aspects of Obama’s Health Care Speech and Helping Him Get Beyond His Internal Contradictions

By Rabbi Michael Lerner for Tukkin Daily

Media analyses of President Obama’s health care speech were divided on whether he had indicated serious support for a public option or had, instead, cleverly tossed a bone of “recognition” to the progressives while simultaneously demanding that they drop their insistence that the health care reform undercut insurance company profits.

The confusion, for once, is not with the media but with the incoherence of a centrist politics. Obama wishes to relieve the suffering of Americans, but he does not wish to challenge the profit-uber-alles old “Bottom Line” of the competitive marketplace. Unfortunately for him and for most Americans, he can’t have it both ways. FDR recognized that — and so was willing to stand up to the vested interests of the class from which he emerged, not only rhetorically, as Obama is willing to do at some rare moments like his Health Care speech, but in the actual policies he promoted.

Goodness knows Obama has tried. He understands the suffering caused by the military-industrial complex’s insistence that American security can only come through economic, military and diplomatic domination of the world, and would like to alleviate it. He would prefer a world of peace. But he can’t get that without challenging the fundamental equation of security with domination and presenting an alternative, e.g. that security might best be achieved through generosity and genuine caring about the well-being of others around the world, manifested in the kind of G-8 funded Global Marshall Plan that has been introduced into Congress by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). So, instead, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan.

Obama is aware that unless we can get down to not more than 350 particles per million of carbon emissions that life on the planet is finished. Standing up to the corporate interests that have resisted this and managed to eviscerate his environmental program into a corporate-giveaway called “cap and trade” would require championing a carbon tax that he fears would make him unpopular with the corporate polluters and with the public whose consciousness these polluter are able to shape through the media.

Obama knows that a single-payer program — extending Medicare to everyone — is far more rational than what he has proposed to Congress, but he also believes that eliminating the insurance companies, hospital chains, and other medical profiteers would require a battle beyond his current capacities.

To address any of these problems fully would require a fundamental challenge to the old Bottom Line. Obama would have to call for a New Bottom Line — to advocate for defining governmental and private corporate policies as “rational,” “productive” or “efficient” not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity, as well as enhance our capacities to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred and our capacities to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe.

He actually reached in that direction momentarily at the end of his Health Care speech to Congress by seeming to endorse Senator Ted Kennedy’s “large-heartedness: a concern and regard for the plight of others” which he defined as “our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.”

Yet over and over again in the details of his plan it was not this large-heartedness that he championed, but a belief in the positive outcomes of the competitive marketplace. What Obama omitted from mention is that the ethos of that marketplace, which rewards selfishness and materialism and “looking out for number one,” as the “common sense” that guides individual as well as governmental behavior, is a product of the fear that we cannot count on others, that there will be no one there to take care of us, and that we must therefore maximize our own advantage lest someone else do so for themselves in ways that will permanently hurt or undermine us.

Obama can’t help us overcome that fear until he does so himself. He has to allow himself to know, and then help Americans to understand, that most people actually do want to help each other, get delight in being caring and loving, feel fulfilled when they are able to improve the well-being of others. Most people already know this about themselves, but are unsure whether it’s true of their neighbors or others. Obama’s most important contribution would be to fight for policies based on this understanding and to challenge those who believe the world is filled with people who are primarily self-seeking and aggressive. Unfortunately, he can’t do that while remaining loyal to the centrist ideology and its insistence that the aggressiveness manifested in the current competitive marketplace, is what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

Imagine, for instance, if Obama had started his speech with the idea of “we are all in this together” that he ended it with, and then applied that to each specific part of his program. Sadly, that was impossible precisely because his actual program is in conflict with this at several points. He won’t support health care reform that raises the deficit. How can that be justified by a president who raised the deficit to help bail out the people who caused the banks and investment companies to fail all of us! He promises not to give any benefits to undocumented immigrants — but then “we” are not “all in it together!” He is willing to use government to coerce into his plan people who would not voluntarily join, but not to force insurance companies to lower the prices (for example, by regulating their prices at the expense of lowering their profit rates or simply by creating Medicare for All. He tries to make a public option plausible by comparing it to public community and state colleges, but also assures the insurance companies that they have nothing to worry about from his plan because “the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” Yet the public option will not be open to those of us who already have private health care insurance. These limitations guarantee that the public option will not achieve the goal of lowering prices or obscene levels of profits. Public universities and community colleges have never been able to sustain themselves on the tuitions of those who use them. If that had been the requirement from the start, tens of millions of Americans would never have obtained the benefits of a public education that enabled them to get better jobs and go on to make valuable contributions to society in turn. If the principle had been that these colleges could not contribute to state or federal deficits, they would long ago have folded. So where is the “we” who are “all in it together” when crippling the only part of his plan that really makes an attempt at a universal solidarity?

There are two views about Obama that are at odds in the liberal and progressive world. One holds that Obama really shares all this same perspective with us but has lost his own moorings because he is surrounded by inside-the-Beltway realists and pragmatists. On this view, our task is to do what the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ conference June 11-14, 2010, is aimed to do: “Support Obama to BE the Obama we Voted For — not the inside-the-Beltway pragmatist and realist whose compromises have disempowered his followers and led many previous supporters to become cynical.”

The other view is that he actually does really believe in the capitalist marketplace, not only as “the best that can be achieved at the moment” but as an embodiment of his ideals. In that case, our task is to respectfully support him to live up to his own ideals as much as possible, since in so doing he will both push to the limits what can be accomplished in the current system and eventually be forced to acknowledge that a truly humane system is incompatible with the Old Bottom Line and that we actually need a whole new society based on the New Bottom Line. Actually, that’s another focus for our NSP conference next June as well – to bring together the forces that actually want to build a very different kind of reality, know that it is needed now, and want to define the contours of that new society.

Ultimately, people in this perspective know that what we need is a spiritual progressive political party. But a first step now is to bring such people together to begin to cooperate (difficult enough, given the degree to which the capitalist marketplace has forced most of these groups to compete with each other for scarce financial support and public recognition). The need for such a party will become increasingly clear as Obama’s centrism yields policies that do not eliminate but actually perpetuate human suffering.

But we’ll be praying that we are wrong about this, and that in the short term at least Obama a. gets vindicated and b. succeeds in reducing suffering. Only, deep down, in our most rational moments, we know that if the system remains largely in place, and only its worst and most humanly and environmentally destructive parts are partially constrained, in the not-too-long-run the suffering will increase. And it is this recognition, not a disrespect for Obama, that demands of us that we not simply be satisfied with being the left-wing of an Obama cheerleading squad, but lovingly respectful critics of his direction. How to do this in a way that does not immediately marginalize us among the many spiritual progressives whose loyalty to Obama would make them angry at us for even raising these questions is something that keeps us up at nights, not only because those Obama loyalists are part of our spiritual progressive project, but because we ourselves genuinely admire Obama’s decency, morality, and intelligence.

Liberals and progressives who feel that they have already compromised too much by giving up on “Medicare For All” and embracing a watered-down Public Option are right to resist Obama’s pressure to drop that public option – not because no good could possibly be achieved without it, but because the ideas underlying the dropping of a public option are the same ideas that inevitably lead us to the militarist/domination worldview, to environmental irresponsibility, and to a health care system that will continue to privilege profits over human needs. And that is why Centrist politics appears so incoherent and self-contradictory and unable to relieve the suffering moderates like Obama genuinely desire to heal.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine ( , chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives ( and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco (


  1. papagroove on September 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Nice read. Thanks.

  2. Vashti Winterburg on September 13, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Dear Rabbi Lerner, thank you for your article, unfortunately I can only conclude that Obama and most of Congress can only be described as banal. It is one thing to aim at the target and fall short, it is quite another thing to know that a large part of our public is suffering because of the injustice, corruption and greed of our present non-health care system, but to propose changes that will not alleviate the suffering, but instead create a windfall for the very perpetrators of this injustice. This is totally unacceptable.
    Incidentally, the Episcopalians passed two resolutions at their general convention this summer, one endorsing health reform and one endorsing single payer.
    Vashti Winterburg, co-chair Kansas Health Care for All

    “We’re paying for a Cadillac! Why are we driving a Yugo?! H.R.676!”

  3. Samantha Cook on September 13, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Thank you for all the great insights in your thoughtful article. You ought to send a copy of it to the Obama. I have been flip-flopping back and forth between indignant anger at the opponents of health reform and their treatment of our President, and my own indignance at his backing down on the public option, knowing that even that won’t work in the long run and that single payer is the only reform model that really makes sense. I feel that it is important to support him in the face of so much misinformation and knee-jerk reactions from the opponents, and at the same time, find it vexing when he reverts back to what you so aptly call the “inside the beltway pragmatist.”
    I hope and pray that he soon finds the spiritual courage to do what is right, especially because he has already inspired so many people to find their own courage to do so, and to become instruments of help and hope.

    • Jeri on October 8, 2009 at 2:31 pm

      I feel it is more important to understand what Obama is about, his agenda, why he was hired, and who surrounds him and advises him, and paid for his election. If you understand this I would ask how you can support him? He was elected to squash resistance to the excesses of Bush and wipe out the last of the black left.
      Has he reversed any Bush policies- war, torture, surveillance by Verizon,et al, massive cuts to Medicare, on and on.
      The healthcare debate is fake- Obama is playing out the game.
      Look at his deeds if you wish to support him. Words are cheap.