HEALTH CARE REFORM Did H.R. 3590 pass because we the people fought for it? Or because Obama and Pelosi did?
Late Sunday evening, upon the passage of health insurance reform legislation by the House of Representatives, President Obama spoke to reporters in the East Room of the White House. After discussing the momentous nature of the achievement and thanking members of Congress and his administration, he spoke directly to his supporters.
“To every unsung American who took the time to sit down and write a letter or type out an e-mail hoping your voice would be heard — it has been heard tonight. To the untold numbers who knocked on doors and made phone calls, who organized and mobilized out of a firm conviction that change in this country comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up, let me affirm that conviction: This moment is possible because of you.”
This was a popular thing to say. A portion of this quote became the president’s Facebook status, and as of Tuesday night, 55,026 people “liked” it. But this raises a question unique to our generation: If 55,026 “like” something on Facebook, must it be true?
In this case, I’m skeptical. Just about every public opinion poll taken in the days and weeks leading up to the vote on Sunday showed that more Americans opposed the bill than supported it. Many of those in opposition also wrote letters or typed e-mails hoping that their voices would be heard. Are they not “unsung”?
Indeed, the passage of this bill seems to be an obvious case of top-down change. Democratic leaders saw that the public was, for whatever reason, opposed to the bill, but they decided to pass it anyway. I think their decision was the right one and a very strong case for representative over direct democracy, for members of Congress valuing their constituents’ interests over their constituents’ current preferences.
Does Obama really think that it was a groundswell of public support, not Nancy Pelosi’s steely resolve in an uncertain political environment, that pushed the bill to the finish line? I doubt it. While much has been made of the president’s community organizing past and have linked this past to his supposed bottom-up governing style, John Judis’ 2008 account in “The New Republic” of Obama’s transition from community organizer to politician shows that it was prompted by the realization that to make change, in the young Obama’s words, “You either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials.”
With this in mind, Obama worked his way up to become the most powerful elected official in the world and is now successfully making change. But he continues to talk like a community organizer. During the campaign, he frequently talked about how the campaign wasn’t about him, how he was just a symbol elevated by the people with the hope of creating a better country.
I think it’s just a shtick. But what a shtick it is. During the campaign, by getting people excited about politics and making them think they actually mattered, Obama generated a buzz. Perhaps most importantly, it made people feel good about supporting him and contributing money to his campaign, which, in the aggregate, made a huge difference. The genius of Obama is that in making people think they matter and act as if they matter, they can start to matter.
But this shtick frequently requires a willing suspension of disbelief when people don’t really matter. Shortly after the 2008 election, the News dared to question that disbelief by citing a study by Professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber to suggest that all of the phone-banking and door-knocking done by members of Yale for Change (including me) had minimal impact (“Months of canvassing, 430 votes to show for it?” Nov. 6, 2008). Many of my fellow Yalies for Change objected vociferously to the article, but none could present a competing study that suggested their impact was greater than the original study’s results would imply.
Just as the Obama campaign wanted to make you feel like you knocking on doors had a chance to swing the election, the Obama Administration wants you to think that your actions were responsible for getting health care passed, even if it is pretty clear that they weren’t.
Obama has been a top-down leader throughout his political career — all politicians are. It is perhaps an indication of just how good a top-down leader he is that he can convince people that his accomplishments are coming from the bottom up.
Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.