Monday, December 17, 2007

Obama and the Audacity of Naiveté

Political analysts and rival U.S. presidential candidates are fast realizing that bashing Obama's lack of experience may be the most viable line of attack against the Illinois Senator. Rumors that Obama is secretly Muslim have not done much and will likely take a backseat after his appearance at Church last Sunday. Furthermore, Hilary Clinton's recent slide in the polls painfully highlighted the inefficacy of slandering his kindergarten essays and candidly admitted teenage experiments.

Former President Bill Clinton tried yesterday to return the American public's focus to the fact of Obama's naiveté. He wondered out loud whether voters are "prepared to roll the dice" on the forty-six year old who joined the Senate in 2005, and started running a mere year after that.

Today, Paul Krugman also chimed in on his New York Times op-ed, criticizing what he calls the Senator's inexperienced "Big Table Fantasies".

Krugman criticizes Obama for wanting to engage with the insurance and drug lobbies in the health care reform process that he, like most of the other Democratic candidates, is promising.

"We want to reduce the power of drug companies and insurance companies and so forth, but the notion that they will have no say-so at all in anything is just not realistic," Obama said in the Democratic Debate at Des Moines, Iowa last week.

Krugman argues that Obama is being unrealistic because the drug and insurance companies - the cause of many of our health care problems - are unlikely to have a constructive role in health reform. He describes it as a simplistic, rational incentives story. The drug and insurance companies see their profits reduced by any serious health reform plan, and therefore will grind their teeth against any and all such proposed changes.

While Krugman is right about these companies being opposed to reforms, he misses the point that simply ignoring these companies doesn't make them go away. Stiff resistance from these industries is guaranteed. Given this implacable position, however, what is the best that any contender hoping to bring about serious health care reform can do? Working with the industries and including them in the process, no matter how highly contested it may be (and it definitely will be!) seems more practical.

Obama has said, "'s time to let the drug and insurance industries know that while they'll get a seat at the table, they don't get to buy every chair." But how can we be sure the drug and insurance industries will be content with not buying every chair?

It seems that they were in at least one particular instance in Illinois in 2004.

Obama was instrumental in the successful legislation of the Health Care Justice Act which was narrowly passed by the Illinois Senate in May, 2004. One of his three amendments to the bill made changes favorable to the insurance industry, but in doing so brought them on board with a policy that they had vigorously been trying to sink from day one.

That industries oppose any policy that hurts their profits is obvious. Once substantial bipartisan support develops in the legislature for the policy, making it increasingly likely to become law, however, it is rational for the same industries to want to have an input in the policy-making process. Their strategy then shifts from one of 'dragging their feet' with regards to the proposed measure to trying to work with the disliked but inevitable policy measure in order to minimize their damages.

All relevant parties affected by a certain measure can and need to have a constructive role in its development. Given the undeniable power of lobbies in U.S. politics, I think Obama's strategy of giving the industries a seat on the big table is far from fantasy. It is a step toward acknowledging their influence on the policy-making framework, and therefore, molding it too.