President Obama gave a series of comments to the New Yorker’s David Remnick that, predictably, are attracting attention this morning because he said: “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” Obama also said there are blacks and whites who “give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President,” but this nuance isn’t making it into the headlines.
Far more interesting than this, however, are Obama’s comments about race and the Affordable Care Act:
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”
Some folks will probably accuse Obama of hinting GOP governors are opting out of the Medicaid expansion for racial reasons. But it seems to me he’s arguing the opposite. He’s asking liberals to acknowledge that you can make a legitimate states rights argument outside of a racial context, while asking conservatives to understand that an African American president (he doesn’t say this, but the context makes it inescapable) can be pushing a federal solution not to crush states rights, but to help poor people of all different backgrounds who need health care.
In one sense, there is a racial dimension to the debate over Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “poor uninsured black adults residing in the south” are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the decision of many states not to opt in to the Medicaid expansion, likely leading to “widening” racial disparities in coverage and access to care.
But that study also found that some 2.2 million whites fall into the “Medicaid gap,” meaning many poor whites will also be adversely impacted by GOP governors who continue to refuse the Medicaid expansion.
National Journal recently noted that GOP attacks on the Affordable Care Act, with their focus on those getting “free health care” thanks to the Medicaid expansion, are akin to the “welfare queen” attacks, and have taken on an element of “class warfare” and “racial undertones.” Mitt Romney recently claimed he lost in part because he’d underestimated Obamacare’s appeal to “minority populations.” But if such language about the safety net is meant to rally downscale whites against Dems, it’s also worth noting that many poor whites benefit from things like food stamps and unemployment insurance — and, yes, the Medicaid expansion in states where it is being implemented. Even in southern states Kentucky and West Virginia.
The “free stuff” line complements the states rights argument against Obamacare — Dems are imposing it on red states in a bid to use federal power and handouts to create an ever-growing moocher class that will ultimately overwhelm the non-takers. I’m not sure Obama has ever addressed this debate in these terms before.
* OBAMACARE DEMAND SURGES IN WEST VIRGINIA: Related to the above: The New York Times has a terrific piece looking at poor and unhealthy West Virginia residents who are finding that the Medicaid expansion is a lifeline. Key nugget:
Here in West Virginia, which has some of the shortest life spans and highest poverty rates in the country, the strength of the demand has surprised officials, with more than 75,000 people enrolling in Medicaid…Waitresses, fast food workers, security guards and cleaners described feeling intense relief that they are now protected from the punishing medical bills that have punched holes in their family budgets.
We’re seeing something similar in Kentucky, where a Democratic governor has embraced the Medicaid expansion (just as in West Virginia), with the result that poor and unhealthy residents are signing up in droves.
* NEED FOR HEALTH CARE OVERCOMES DISLIKE OF OBAMA: Another key nugget from the above Times piece:
Chad Webb, a shy 30-year-old who is enrolling people in Mingo County, said a woman at a recent event used biblical terms to disparage Mr. Obama as an existential threat to the nation. Mr. Webb said he thought to himself: “This man is not the Antichrist. He just wants you to have health insurance.” Eventually, though, people’s desperate need for insurance seems to be overcoming their distaste for the president.
* IRAN DEAL MOVES FORWARD: Over the weekend, it was announced that Iran took its first concrete steps towards fulfilling its end of the temporary deal curbing its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of some sanctions. Last week it was already clear that the push for a new Iran sanctions bill was losing momentum; news like this could make it easier for Harry Reid to hold off on allowing a vote on such a measure. On the other hand, proponents of the bill will be searching for any sign of the talks going wrong in order to revive it.
* OBAMA WOULD VETO IRAN BILL: One other nugget from Obama’s interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick has direct bearing on the Iran debate:
“Historically, there is hostility and suspicion toward Iran, not just among members of Congress but the American people,” Obama said, adding that “members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues.” He went on, “I don’t think a new sanctions bill will reach my desk during this period, but, if it did, I would veto it and expect it to be sustained.”
“Very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues”! Points for subtlety. That aside, with 58 co-sponsors, the bill really is within striking distance of a veto override, though Senate Dems really might prove reluctant to take that step in the end.
* SOARING PUBLIC CONCERN ABOUT INEQUALITY: A fascinating new Gallup poll finds:
Two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. This includes three-fourths of Democrats and 54% of Republicans.
The finding among Dems is a reminder that Democratic candidates in 2016 will probably have to talk a lot about inequality, and campaign on an ambitious agenda to combat it, given how big a preoccupation it is among Dem voters.
* DISAPPROVAL OF NSA SURVEILLANCE RISES: A new Pew poll finds that Obama’s speech promising reforms to NSA surveillance has not had much of an impact, as disapproval continues to increase:
Overall approval of the program has declined since last summer, when the story first broke based on Edward Snowden’s leaked information. Today, 40% approve of the government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts, while 53% disapprove. In July, more Americans approved (50%) than disapproved (44%) of the program. In addition, nearly half (48%) say there are not adequate limits on what telephone and internet data the government can collect.
Also, while it has often been rightly observed that Dem voters have been more willing to tolerate this sort of overreach under Obama than under Bush, this poll finds, that a majority of them now disapproves.
* AND A COMPROMISE REMAINS POSSIBLE ON IMMIGRATION: With House Republicans set to rollout immigration reform principles that may well include a legalization proposal but no pathway to citizenship, you are likely to see a lot more articles with the framing of this one in the Hill:
Congressional Democrats and advocates for immigration reform will have to decide how much to bend as they await proposals from House Republicans that are likely to fall far short of what they have demanded.
But this is only half the story. Republicans, too, will have to decide whether they are willing to compromise beyond offering a legalization proposal, by, say, agreeing to steps to clear already existing channels to citizenship.