Obama has evolved on health care

Angry, fearful conservatives are saying President Obama is lying when he opposes a single-payer government system of health insurance.

They say that what Democrats propose is merely the opening feint of a sinister plot — a Trojan horse — to put government in charge of health care.

Conservatives cite a speech Obama gave to the AFL-CIO as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 2003. He said then that, in a perfect world, he’d prefer a “single-payer universal system.”

(Single-payer and universal are two different things, by the way. Single-payer is a government system like Medicare. Universal means everyone is covered, regardless of how payments are made. The current proposal is for universal coverage with multiple payers.)

Obama advised in that same speech that a single-payer system was politically untenable in America, at least for a while.

Then, just last year while campaigning for president in New Mexico, Obama said he probably would go with a single-payer system for health care if we were building a health care system from scratch, which, he hastened to explain, we’re not.

Aha, cries the angry right: We have him right here on tape wanting to make us stand in line someday so that a government bureaucrat can hand us a couple of aspirins when we’re dying of cancer.

Here’s what I say about all that:

1. Obama said what he said in 2003. He meant it at the time. He must be accountable for his words. But, even then, he admitted a single-payer system was out of the question for the time being.

2. His statement in 2008 about how he’d construct a health care system from scratch was plainly and wholly theoretical. It was moot on its face. We’re not building a health care system from scratch. So it does not matter a whit or tinker’s damn how anyone would go about building one from scratch.

3. We always must allow for context. Obama was running in a crowded Democratic primary field in Illinois in 2003, gearing up for the primary in March 2004. He was talking to the AFL-CIO, for heaven’s sake.

Let me explain: A Democratic cattle call before organized labor in a big Democratic state is a liberal’s holiday. It’s one of the few times politicians actually compete to edge a little farther left than the other guy. It’s like Republicans lining up to get baptized at the Southern Baptist Convention.

4. We also must allow for evolution of thought. People don’t always mean permanently everything they happen to say casually. You don’t. I don’t. Obama doesn’t.

Even if Obama meant what he said in 2003, he’s a far different, more experienced, more seasoned and more nuanced man now than he was then. Comparing his statements from ’03 and ’08 reveal that very evolution. Something he favored conceptually in ’03 was something that wouldn’t work in the real world of ’08.

5. Why must we always demonize and assign sinister schemes to those with whom we simply disagree? There are people who truly believe that Obama, regardless of what he says and does today, is a devious and evil man determined to change their lives in drastic ways that they desperately fear.

But this is the most you can say accurately: Obama is historically more amenable than the average Joe to a concept of single-payer health insurance, and, even at that, he wholly eschews the concept as a practical solution.

Irrational fear of what might be is keeping us from having a civil, informed, intelligent and important discussion about what is.

Now people are arguing about whether all this town hall meeting anger reflects genuine grass roots or is mostly trumped-up by organizers.

So here’s the deal on that: I’ve been covering politics a long time. I’ve never seen anything that was purely and pristinely a matter of spontaneous grass roots.

People are instinctively detached from politics. All political activism has to be fomented and organized by an outside party.

Anyway, it’s less a factor how people got to a meeting than that they are there.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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