The Final Health Care Vote and What it Really Means

It’s not nearly as momentous as the passage of Medicare in 1965 and won’t fundamentally alter how Americans think about social safety nets. But the likely passage of Obama’s health care reform bill is the biggest thing Congress has done in decades, and has enormous political significance for the future.

Medicare directly changed the life of every senior in America, giving them health security and dramatically reducing their rates of poverty. By contrast, most Americans won’t be affected by Obama’s health care legislation. Most of us will continue to receive health insurance through our employers. (Only a comparatively small minority will be required to buy insurance who don’t want it, or be subsidized in order to afford it. Only a relatively few companies will be required to provide it who don’t now.)

Medicare built on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal notion of government as insurer, with citizens making payments to government, and government paying out benefits. That was the central idea of Social Security, and Medicare piggybacked on Social Security.

Obama’s legislation comes from an alternative idea, begun under the Eisenhower administration and developed under Nixon, of a market for health care based on private insurers and employers.  Eisenhower locked in the tax break for employee health benefits; Nixon pushed prepaid, competing health plans, and urged a requirement that employers cover their employees. Obama applies Nixon’s idea and takes it a step further by requiring all Americans to carry health insurance, and giving subsidies to those who need it.

So don’t believe anyone who says Obama’s health care legislation marks a swing of the pendulum back toward the Great Society and the New Deal. Obama’s health bill is a very conservative piece of legislation, building on a Republican rather than a New Deal foundation. The New Deal foundation would have offered Medicare to all Americans or, at the very least, featured a public insurance option.

The significance of Obama’s health legislation is more political than substantive. For the first time since Ronald Reagan told America government is the problem, Obama’s health bill reasserts that government can provide a major solution. In political terms, that’s a very big deal.

Most Americans continue to be suspicious of government. That distrust is deeply etched in our culture and traditions. Our system of government was devised by people who distrusted government and intentionally created checks and balances, three separate branches, and almost insuperable odds against getting big things done. The period extending from 1933 to 1965 — the New Deal and the Great Society — was an historical aberration from that long tradition, animated by the unique crises of the Great Depression and World War II, and the social cohesion that flowed from them for another generation. Ronald Reagan merely picked up where Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover left off.

But Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests.

We will not return to the New Deal or the Great Society, but nor will we continue to wallow in the increasingly obsolete Reagan view that we don’t need a strong and competent government. Today’s vote confirms our hope that we can have both strength and competence in Washington. It is an audacious hope, but we have no choice.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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