How Obamacare Lost Its Soul

These are real deliverables, and Obama is right to reaffirm and clarify them for voters, especially after so many of the law’s virtues have been obscured, both by Republican demagoguery and the implementation fiascos. As Ganz put it in an email: “One of the big ‘values’ in health care provision is reliability, security, being there—which is exactly what this whole debacle has undermined. [In this case] ‘making it work’ actually has moral content.”

But the program that Obama and his team are desperately trying to make work is also based on moral claims about human dignity and distributive justice—many of which, until recently, were pretty bipartisan. If Obama recognizes that “the basic social compact in America” is now under attack, why can’t the basic social compact in America get its own three-week messaging calendar at some point? The vast inequalities and decreasing mobility in our society got their day in court Wednesday. Can he focus on how our common humanity and the advantages many Americans receive through the dumb luck of birth should inform their obligations to one another on a Thursday and a Friday?

The main argument against launching such an effort is that it would be politically hazardous—that any overt set of moral claims defending a program like the ACA would be tantamount to confirming one conservative thinker’s charge that it’s just “a massive, massive income redistribution.”

For supporters of progressive taxation, the social safety net, and the responsibility to heal the sick, that rationale for shying away from moral claims is misguided to the point of self-sabotage. Adding a set of bold moral arguments for healthcare reform to a recitation of the program’s transactional benefits is a winning strategy for three main reasons.

First, the risk is not that high. What does the worst-case scenario look like? Republicans assail his rhetoric, refuse to work with him on any part of his legislative agenda, and call him a socialist? Right.

Second, it’s better than being ignored. Voters were already tuning Obama out before the Healthcare.gov woes. Now, with tanking approval ratings, he’s in danger of becoming a lame duck. In this climate, a series of cautious, policy-heavy speeches about the ACA’s benefits is unlikely to break through. Neuroscience research shows that emotions are key to engaging voters, and Pope Francis is a testament to how that a sustained moral critique can turn heads. Obama is more likely to enjoy the benefits of the bully pulpit if he continues to treat it a bit like an actual pulpit—a place more for making moral claims than listing goodies

Third, Obama is the standard-bearer of a party in the midst of a fight over the validity of its philosophical underpinning. (The administration’s Healthcare.gov incompetence has not helped.) With 2014 looming and many of his supporters in retreat (or at least feeling that way), Obama needs to fight the progressive corner. If the country has really come to a point at which a Democratic president won’t defend the basic ideas behind “income redistribution”—something we’ve been doing for over 150 years now—Democrats are soon going to have much bigger problems than a malfunctioning website. Obama’s opponents certainly aren’t shying away from making their own moral claims.

In her new book Political Emotions, political philosopher Martha Nussbaum cautions that “ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as tepid and boring”; she rejects as bound for failure a liberal politics that is “morally ‘neutral’” or lacks “a certain definite moral content.” None of our greatest leaders—Nussbaum focuses on Abraham Lincoln and King from the American tradition—made these mistakes.

On Wednesday, discussing America’s “economic and civic foundation,” Obama promised that “over the course of the next year, and for the rest of my presidency, that’s where you should expect my administration to focus all our efforts.” Let’s hope that’s true, and that president relies on more than just economic arguments in proving it so. 

Presented by

Michael Zuckerman

Michael Zuckerman is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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