Why Weren’t Progressives Making Cat-Calls During Obama’s Speech?

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. shouted "You Lie" to President Obama during last week's joint session of Congress speech when after Obama said illegal immigrants would not be covered under his healthcare reform proposal.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted "You Lie!" to President Obama during last week's joint session of Congress speech after Obama said illegal immigrants would not be covered under his healthcare reform proposal.

Rep. “Joe” Wilson (R-SC), the cracker bigot who offended Congressional decorum by shouting “You Lie!” during President Barack Obama’s health policy address last week, claims his outburst was the result of his emotion getting the best of him.

The question I have is why emotion didn’t get the best of more progressives members of Congress—those who claim to be anti-war, pro-choice, and especially to favor single-payer health care, or at least a genuine, robust publicly owned insurance program to compete with the private insurance industry.

Wilson, a former aide to racist Senator Strom Thurmond, claims he was upset that Obama was saying his health reform plan wouldn’t provide insurance coverage for illegal immigrants (though given his history, he was probably just upset that a black guy was up there in front of him giving a presidential address). But surely there were other people, on the left, who were gagging during that talk for other more rational reasons.

One of the big problems with American democracy is that the presidency has over the years been elevated to the level of a monarchy, with all the imperial trappings and pomposity formerly associated with royalty. Presidents surely should get no more respect than a prime minister, and look at the hoots and catcalls PMs have to endure when they address Parliament in the UK or even staid Canada.

That’s a good thing.

Here are a few of the things that should have elicited at least some boos or derisive laughter, instead of polite applause from the liberals in that joint session:

  1. First and foremost, Obama’s claim that he was “determined to be the last” president to have to deal with health care reform and that he didn’t want to “kick the can” down the street for a future administration to deal with. In fact, that is just what he did with his proposal, which has left the basic untenable system of employee-financed healthcare in place, and which has left the private insurance industry in control of who gets treatment and how much they will have to pay for it. It’s a sure bet that before very long—perhaps in just four more years—another president will face the same crisis. A boisterous cat-call of “Can Kicker!” here would have been in order.
  2. Obama said that “nothing else even comes close” to health care expenditures in terms of causing the federal deficit. In fact, something does—the military budget—but that topic is off limits for both Republicans and Democrats.  Why couldn’t Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold have yelled out, “What about military spending!”
  3. Perhaps one of the biggest lies of the night was the president’s claim that while there are “arguments to be made” for single-payer systems like Canada’s, switching to single-payer in the US would require building “an entirely new system from scratch.”  The truth: Medicare is already a successful single-payer system and in fact, it is bigger and older than Canada’s own nation-wide system. Expanding it to cover every American would not be starting from scratch at all. It would be expanding something already proven.  Where were the shouts of “What about Medicare!” from Rep. John Conyers (and his dozens of cosigners), whose bill, HR 676, to expand Medicare to all has been barred from getting even a hearing by the House leadership with encouragement from the White House?
  4. The president insisted that insurance executives don’t “cherry-pick” profitable customers and push out those who are sickest, because they are “bad people.” He said they are just doing it because it’s profitable.  It would have been nice if at least someone in the assembled throng of lobbiest-enthralled House and Senate members had shouted out something like “Just like bank robbers and drug dealers!” because the truth is that health insurance executives are bad people. They know that they are killing people every day through their ruthless policies, and they go right ahead and do it. Pursuit of profit does not, or at least should not, constitute a license to kill. (Just imagine a hit man, at his sentencing hearing, telling the judge, “I’m not a bad person, Your Honor. I just knock people off because it’s profitable.”)
  5. The president said he was “not trying to put the insurance industry out of business,” and added, “They provide a legitimate service.”  This line, not surprisingly, given the amount of money that industry has lavished on members of Congress and on the president himself, got what was probably the loudest bi-partisan applause of the night. But it surely led to a lot of groans and of coffee, tea or beer being spewed out involuntarily across carpets and upholstery in homes across America. Legitimate service? Insurance firms are nothing but vampires,  or better, leeches on the health care system. They provide no service. Ask doctors, who have to fight to get permission to treat patients, and then fight to get reimbursed. Ask patients, who spend hours on the phone arguing with faceless drones, some probably in Bangalor or Manila, who are denying them coverage for needed medicines or procedures that are supposed to be covered. Listen to the testimony of whistle-blowers who have confirmed that those drones actually get paid bonuses based upon the number of claims they manage to deny. How satisfying it would have been if someone in Congress had yelled out, “Legitimate service my ass!”
  6. Turning to the pathetically circumscribed and downsized “public option” in his “reform” plan, Obama declared that “a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option.”  Well that may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. It would have been a great moment for Kucinich or Conyers or some other progressive member of Congress to shout out: “A majority also favors a single-payer plan!”
  7. And where the defenders of women’s rights, when Obama vowed that under his plan, “no federal funds would be used to fund abortions?” Couldn’t someone have shouted out, “Women have rights too!”  Is the president really saying that if a woman is raped, or a child gets pregnant through incest, or if a woman’s life is at risk because of a pregnancy, that his plan will not pay for her to obtain an abortion? Cries of “For shame!” should have been ringing through the hall!
  8. Finally the president said that one reason the nation has such record deficits is that during the prior administration, so many initiatives, “including the Iraq War,” were set in motion but “not paid for,” and he vowed, “I will not make that same mistake with health care.”  But he is doing the same thing with supplemental war funding requests for his war in Afghanistan, and with the continued war and occupation in Iraq, and someone should have called him on that. Besides, there’s no way that the program he is proposing will be paid for by current funding. It will add to the deficit and he should have the courage to admit it, or to call for more taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. A lusty “Tax the rich!” cry in unison from the progressive caucus would have been appreciated by viewers.

Racist whack-job Wilson did the cause of democracy and honest discourse an unintended favor when he called the president a “liar.”  In doing so, he put a much-needed ding in the wholly inappropriate and dangerous imperial aura of “respect” that has grown like lichens around the office of President. No more than anyone else in this nation, a president should have to earn the respect not just of the members of Congress, but of the broader public. He or she is another citizen, no more and no less, and when a president, like President Obama in this instance, dissembles, exaggerates or attempts to deceive or mislead, it is healthy for democracy if he is called out on it immediately and publicly.

We need more honesty in Washington, not more civility.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist. He is author of Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (Common Courage Press, 2003) and more recently of The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at

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14 Responses for “Why Weren’t Progressives Making Cat-Calls During Obama’s Speech?”

  1. dobropet says:

    Yes, I agree, we DO need more honesty in Washington D.C.-

    Along with the claims about how much better Canada’s system of healthcare are not being refutted.

  2. This right-wing/libertarian claim that Canada’s health system is a mess is belied by a reality that none of these critics bothers to address: Canada is a democracy, and moreover, is a federal system where each province is much more powerful than our states, and where each one runs its own health system. Despite this, Canada has continued to have a single-payer health system in every one of its provinces now for over 35 years. Not only has not one province tried to opt out–no conservative national government (and there have been a number of them) has dared to try to undo single-payer, for the good reason that the system is so popular that any attempt to do so would be political suicide. If Canada’s health system is so god-awful, then why has it survived for nearly two generations.

    Not just survived, by the way, but improve and expanded!

    I would argue that the biggest threat to Canada’s health system is our money-dominated one, which attracts greedy docs away from Canada. If the US were not here, sucking the greedier specialists away from Canada, the UK and other countries, those countries would have much better systems than they do now.

    Incidentally, most of the “horrow stories” about Canadian health care turn out, upon investigation, to be either bogus, or much less than they appear in the telling.

    But until someone can explain the Canadian system’s popularity in Canada, one has to view the critique coming from anti-single-payer partisans here in the US with a large cup of salt.

    Dave Lindorff

  3. Paul says:

    South Carolina has a long list of dignitaries that includes Lauren Caitlin Upton (Miss Teen USA 2007 pageant contestant), Board of Education Chair, Kristin Maguire, Governor (and avid Appalachian hiker), Mark Sanford and now Joe “the hater not a debater” Wilson or the “screamer not the dreamer” as others have dubbed him. I did enjoy him cut and running through his apology, which only goes to show that he stands for nothing. He is just another good old boy where in the morning these married men preach to you that there should be prayer in our schools and in the evening they are on their cell phones setting up a date with their other women on the side, hypocrisy has been bred in. I am not surprised that he felt compel to yell like he was at some Friday night game. So long Joey, you too will be seeing the unemployment lines.

  4. dobropet says:

    Let’s break it down…

    Right-wing/Libertarian, well that duly does speak of the entire conservative side doesn’t it? Well, no. First, to view it another way Reagan once said,”I believe if you look at conservatism, you’ll find that the heart and soul of it is libertarianism.” Which I don’t entirely agree with, not at this day and age, especially not with what Bush and company have done with it. Neo-con’s are what they are considered now, and it is their achievements while in the White House that has promoted this view towards right-wingers, not libertarians. Unless you look for the truth underlying this fact, you could never distinguish between the two.

    Those horror stories involving Canada’s system are not untrue, until you look at the facts, some of which were given years ago, addressing these concerns the American people have against imploying their healthcare with Canada’s are justified.

    And Canada’s system whether it is popularized or not does not give credence to government run healthcare being beneficial for the American taxpayers or those using it.

  5. dobropet says:

    Let me explain my view a little more clearly, from Maria Martins:

    “Medical care is not a right. Medical care is a service provided by doctors and others to individuals who want to purchase it. A patient presents to the doctor with a request for care. The fact that the patient has a serious condition – even a life threatening one – does not entitle him, as his right, to the services of the doctor. To claim that he does means that doctors and others who provide these services have no rights, or that society can deliberately ignore these rights for the “greater good”. […] If the exercise of a patient’s so-called “right” to healthcare imposes obligations on taxpayers to pay for it and healthcare practitioners to provide it, then it is not a right, but an attempt to enslave one part of the population for the benefit of another part. In reality, these types of so-called “rights” are offered to groups of Americans by politicians in exchange for votes. Claims on humanitarian concerns are merely a fig leaf over a naked power grab by the state.”

    Hope this helps.

  6. First, let me say that by mentioning conservatives and libertarians in the same sentence, I was not equating them. And if we were to be really accurate, we’d have to distinguish true conservatives, neo-cons (who are anything but conservative!) and libertarians. Conservatives don’t like single-payer health care, or any kind of government health care, because they have a congenital fear of anything that smacks of socialism. Libertarians don’t like government in health care because they think that government only belongs in the business of providing armies and police. Neo-cons, frankly, don’t give a shit one way or the other. All they care about is aggrandizing federal power. If they thought socializing health care would give them more power, they’d be for it.

    That said, and I gather dopropet is a libertarian, I have to disagree with the whole idea that healthcare isn’t a right.

    If you go back to any simpler society–and I’m referring to pre-nation-state times–if someone in the community got sick, everyone pitched in to help the person get better, and to help out the family. This today is done as “charity” by church groups, etc., but we’ve lost in our larger society, that connection to our community. Also, back in the dim past, health care was a simple thing. The “doctor” was a medicine man or woman, who knew healing arts and probably didn’t charge anything for his or her work. Today, medical care is hugely expensive–so expensive that in communities like the Amish, where this kind of community care is still practiced, it can outstrip even the community’s collective resources to help. So as our ability to heal people grows, and as our societies expand in size and scope, it becomes necessary to expand the community responsibiltiy for the health of its members.

    There is a historical precedent for the idea of health care as a right and as a community responsibility. Socialized medicine is the modern answer to that traditional belief.

    A libertarian in tribal pre-historic times would have been a dead person. As a belief system it is a historical artifact of a perhaps at most 2-300 year period in human history, and as we now have hit a wall in terms of planatery carrying capacity for humankind, the idea that I can do whatever I want, and that I have no social responsibility for my brothers and sisters is simply not tenable, ethical, or even possible.

    Get used to it. We’re all in this together, and the trick is to figure out how to help each other get by, with the minimal instusion on our freedom to be ourselves.

    People have a right to medical care, jusst as they have a right to be protected from starvation.
    Dave Lindorff

  7. Paul says:

    Some call Joe Wilson a great statesman, and are even proud of his “Shout Out”, so lets see, he says, he was told by the Republican leadership to apologize (he did not realize the magnitude of his mistake), he then gives his weak “not for reals” apology, but then goes on to those “Commentator Talk Shows” and basically says he real was not wrong and plays the victim card and calls for people to send in for money to support him for re-election. Had he kept quiet after his apology, that might have been the end of it but now that people know he lied about the apology the story will continue, until he is out of a job and the funny thing is, he does not see it coming. This summer has been rough for his beleaguered political party. At least he did not end up on the “Republican 2009 Summer of Love” list: Assemblyman, Michael D. Duvall (CA), Senator John Ensign (NV), Senator Paul Stanley (TN), Governor Mark Stanford (SC), Board of Ed Chair, and Kristin Maguire AKA Bridget Keeney (SC). In my opinion the Republican Party has been taken over the most extreme religious right (people who love to push their beliefs on others while trying to take away the rights of those they just hate) and that’s who they need to extract from their party if they real want to win. Good Luck, because as they said in WACO, “We Ain’t Coming Out”. The bithers, the teabaggers, the screamers, and the deathers continued extreme minority presence will become tiresome to mainstream America, if it has not already done so.

  8. The issue about the health care has been bugging America since. I believe that health care is a service provided to the people and not a right. But with all the rumors regarding it,it seems that it is going nowhere!

  9. dobropet says:

    “The bithers, the teabaggers, the screamers, and the deathers continued extreme minority presence will become tiresome to mainstream America, if it has not already done so.” -Paul

    Is that why after his outburst he received over 1.5 million dollars from the people to continue his campaign?

  10. dobropet says:

    People have a right to healthcare correct, but not in the sense of removing the doctors right to refuse service to the patient. Once again you’re removing the practitioners right to say no, or the physicians, or any other personnel in the medical field.

    When you remove the right of one to apply it to another you’ve only taken the rights away from both.

    You are correct that the community has a responsibility to engage in healthcare as they see fit, not as they wish upon those who may not need it. But upon this suggestion the community has the ultimate goal of providing for the welfare of the individual NOT the government. And even further “provide for the general welfare,” does not imply “regulation of healthcare.” Ultimately you are suggesting removing the rights of the doctors to provide for individuals regardless of necessity.
    Not everyone needs healthcare, just as not everyone will benefit from it being provided through government regulatory bodies. I understand that we’ve come along way to expounding upon the principals of healthcare generally, yet to promise it as a necessity and not based upon individual needs simply removes the rights of everyone.

    And the entire idea that we cannot carryout anything in disrespect for our fellow man and not expect consequences will itself manifest when the Maya calender runs out, which is the same time as the I Ching of China. Just a passing thought.

    I’ll expand on the idea of simpler-societies at a later time, until then.

  11. Chief says:

    I gotta say…I just read “piece” and the comments and I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth! Get a life…losers.

  12. dobropet says:

    There’s some more evidence of another group of people disapproving of the healthcare overhaul:

  13. Dizzy says:

    The democrates have become the republicans, and the republicans have become your odd uncle who shows up at holidays.

    Jesus always ran credit checks before care was rendered.

  14. zeepkist says:

    how come the photographers had their cameras ready to make all these nice pictures of this “spontaneous” outburst?

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