Thursday, August 13, 2009

Obama as LBJ? -- Aug. 13, 2009 column


President Lyndon Johnson, signing Medicare into law 44 years ago, triumphantly predicted better lives not only for the elderly but also for younger Americans.

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.”

The genius of LBJ was in offering something for everybody. Yes, seniors would benefit from Medicare, but so too would the younger generation. The new Medicaid program would begin to cover poor children and some of the disabled.

Johnson was right. Medicare transformed lives across generational lines, easing the burden of health-care costs for our aging population. Now ironically that success has become a problem for President Barack Obama as he tries to extend health-care security to other groups.

Polls show that the majority of people over 50 oppose Obama’s health-care reform ideas, while a majority of those under 50 support them. The face of the angry protester at congressional town hall meetings is the retiree who likes his or her Medicare just the way it is, thank you.

In Portsmouth, N.H., Obama tried to reassure seniors, saying, “We are not talking about cutting Medicare benefits.” But he’s also looking for significant savings from the popular program, which he says can be accomplished without hurting beneficiaries.

Obama talked about a letter from a woman who wrote, “I don’t want government-run health care. I don’t want you meddling in the private marketplace. And keep your hands off my Medicare.”

The crowd laughed, and he said, “True story.” He cited Medicare as an example of a government program run right and said seniors should have more confidence that “government
can have a role – not the dominant role, but a role – in making sure the people are treated fairly when it comes to insurance.”

You’d think everyone could agree to such a mild goal, but trust in government is in short supply.

Because no one bill is under consideration – several are kicking around in the House and Senate – nobody can say with certainty what provisions will be in the final package. That has opened the door to fear-mongering, including preposterous claims by Sarah Palin that government “death panels” could withhold care from her parents and baby with Down Syndrome and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who suggested the House Democratic health-reform bill would lead to the government putting elderly people to death.

Palin subsequently stepped back from her claim.

Obama has tried to tamp down fears of Big Brother and rationing, and he has shifted the emphasis from covering the millions who are uninsured to attacking the insurance industry. The idea is that most people do have insurance, but they’re unhappy with their coverage. This may turn out to be a miscalculation.

A new poll by CNN-Opinion Research Corp. found that 74 percent of people are satisfied with their insurance, and 83 percent are happy with their health care.

Obama wants to be the heir to Lyndon Johnson, and it still seems likely that some kind of health-care reform will pass, although it may be less than Obama wants.

As the “don’t-touch-Medicare” chorus grows louder, however, Obama risks becoming more like Bill Clinton, whose attempt to overhaul the entire health-care system died partly because of the opposition of seniors. Voters in the following midterm election punished Democrats and delivered control of the House and Senate to Republicans.

Clinton, chastened by the defeat of reform and the 1994 elections, said on the 30th anniversary of Medicare in 1995, “We had people all over America coming up to me or the first lady…saying, ‘Don’t let the government mess with my Medicare.’ People had actually forgotten where it came from, as if it sort of dropped out of the sky.”

In Johnson’s Great Society, government was a partner in fostering hope across generational lines. Clinton failed at bringing the generations together. We’re about to find out if Obama can cast the benefit net widely -- or whether opponents will be successful in depicting reform as a zero-sum game in which one group must lose.

© Copyright 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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