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Activist-In-Chief

President Obama is hitting the airwaves daily in pursuit of a health care reform that he refuses to define but which he insists we must have. He is behaving like the community activist he used to be, while the situation requires him to be a leader.

There is a big difference.

Last night it was a prime-time news conference. Today it will be a tour of the Cleveland Clinic (closed to the press, in case the staff tells the president something the White House prefers we not hear), followed by a town hall meeting at Shaker Heights High School, where Obama will meet ordinary citizens hand-picked by his media handlers. For a look at how such appearances are organized, see the White House press announcement.

There is, the presidential spinners tell us, no “Obama plan.” The president wants Congress to make the tough decisions about how to extend insurance coverage to all Americans, put a lid on rapidly rising health care costs and keep from blowing another huge hole in the federal wallet. Yet the president demands action — preferably right now, definitely before the end of the year, and, ultimately, without regard to tradeoffs and consequences.

The president has called on bloggers, private citizens and parts of the medical industry itself — specifically, those parts which would benefit from new entitlements — to pressure Congress to complete its work on health care before attention shifts back to all those nasty financial realities, such as a weak economy, staggering budget deficits, and the impending self-destruction of Medicare and Social Security. At the moment, we are a multi-issue country with a single-issue president. That’s not good.

The White House is stalling the release of its annual budget update, which will show a substantially worse picture than the president’s earlier projections. Those projections assumed that this year’s stimulus would limit unemployment to 8%; it now is at 9.5% and still rising. The president has paid no heed to last week’s Congressional Budget Office analysis of House Democrats’ reform plan — the only plan available for public review — which showed that the package of tax hikes and coverage mandates would not hold down health costs and would worsen the federal deficit.

And, interestingly, the president is silent about whether he will reappoint Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke when his term expires in January. Bernanke is highly respected among private economists and has even drawn some admiring comments from Obama. I suspect that the president is keeping his options open, however, to deter Bernanke from injecting his own views into the health care reform debate. The Fed chief has been obligingly mum.

Barack Obama’s White House campaign was built on undefined pledges of “change” coupled with specific promises, to all voters but the wealthiest, that change would give them what they wanted without ever making them pay for it.

Now that life’s realities are getting in the way, the president is seeking to force through his promised change regardless of the consequences that will play out long after his administration is over.

It is nice to have a president who can express himself in coherent English and who is not afraid to take questions from reporters on camera. But let’s not confuse politicking and glibness with leadership.

True leaders convince us to make short-term sacrifices in exchange for a greater long-term good. Obama’s push for health care reform is just the opposite. He promises us immediate gratification, accepts no responsibility for the accompanying costs, and airily dismisses the long-term ramifications.

The president is right when he says that our current health care system costs too much, leaves too many people uncovered and delivers too little. His problem, and ours, is that the action he demands is change for its own sake, rather than change that will work.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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