A front-page story in the July 8, 2009, edition of the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is cutting deals with health industry groups in an effort to gain support for the president's healthcare reform initiative. "Rather than running advertisements against the White House," the Times notes, "the most influential players in the industry are inside the room negotiating with administration officials and leading lawmakers."
Of course, deal making is at the heart of all political processes, but lately it seems that corporate interests -- the banking industry, automakers, coal companies and the lobbyists who love them -- are the only ones with seats at the table.
We can all appreciate the transparency surrounding these meetings. Obama's approach to policymaking is a refreshing departure from former Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force, not to mention the sweetheart deals the Bush administration made with the telecommunications industry at the height of its domestic surveillance program. Still, there's something unsettling about Obama's willingness to do a deal with the captains of industry.
"It turns out that the disconnect between Obama's rhetoric and official U.S. policy is a matter of semantics."
Like his predecessors, Obama doesn't seem to have any qualms about making these deals with other people's money: yours and mine. Rather than take up structural reforms of the nation's banking and financial services industry, Obama is content to bailout Wall Street -- no questions asked. Similarly, in its dealings with the American automotive industry, the Obama administration is unconcerned with the prospect of GM moving some of their operations -- and thousands of jobs -- to China and other developing nations.
In the realm of foreign affairs, Obama's deal making is a bit more opaque. Take the situation in Honduras, for instance. As a number of analysts have suggested, it is unlikely that the Honduran military would have ousted President Manuel Zelaya last month without Washington's knowledge and tacit approval. And while Obama has publicly condemned Zelaya's ouster, the U.S. State Department has yet to cut off aid to the Central American nation.
It turns out that the disconnect between Obama's rhetoric and official U.S. policy is a matter of semantics. As Greg Grandin noted in The Nation, the State Department "was reluctant to use the word 'coup' to describe Zelaya's overthrow, since to do so would trigger automatic sanctions, including the suspension of foreign aid and the withdrawal of U.S. troops."
All of which begs the question: when is a coup not a coup? The situation is vaguely reminiscent of Bill Clinton's infamous defense during the Lewinsky investigation: "It depends what the definition of 'is' is."
"There's something unsettling about Obama's willingness to do a deal with the captains of industry."
Dubious ethics and semantic gymnastics are not the sole purview of the political class, however. Last week's bombshell at the Washington Post is a textbook example of abuse of power in the nation's capital. According to the investigative Web site Politico, lobbyists could fork over as much as $250,000 to attend a "salon" at the home of the paper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, where they could meet with Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and even Post writers and editorial staff.
Following newsroom protests, Weymouth pulled the plug on these "off-the- record" meetings. However, she also made it clear that the paper would continue to pursue innovative ways to leverage the Post's special relationship with "those powerful few" in Washington. In a statement, Weymouth explained, "We do believe that there is a viable way to expand our expertise into live conferences and events that simply enhances what we do -- cover Washington for Washingtonians and those interested in Washington."
Citing the need to develop new revenue streams for the Post, Weymouth continued: "We will begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity."
File that under "who's kidding whom?"
"Small wonder that the so-called debate over healthcare reform is so lopsided. "
While other news outlets cried foul, my guess is that the marketing departments at the nation's leading papers wished they had come up with the idea first. Of course, what was missing in the ensuing uproar over the Post's ethical lapse was any condemnation of the lawmakers and administration officials who were, after all, the main attraction at these little get-togethers. Apparently, that side of the story isn't all that newsworthy.
File that under "business as usual."
Small wonder that the so-called debate over healthcare reform is so lopsided. With money and the right connections, policy deliberations are rather cozy affairs -- just a bit of good-natured bargaining among friends. For the general public it's another matter altogether; we are just spectators to a game that is rigged from the start.
As with all deals, the devil is in the details. Obama's "public option" is shaping up to be nothing more than a taxpayer-funded subsidy for the healthcare industry. So while Obama offers the healthcare industry concessions in exchange for cost-cutting measures that will help pay for healthcare reform, the American people are given a stark choice: your money or your life.
File that under "a raw deal."
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.