This article was last modified on August 19, 2009.

Empire Strikes First: Health Care, Part One

On January 31, the president addressed Congress and the nation, putting forth a bold new health care initiative. I would like to recap some aspects of the proposal and excerpt crucial parts of the speech.

According to the Associated Press, the plan would extend health insurance to farm families, provide more protection against the cost of prolonged illness, and insure low income families for medical care in the home, at the doctor’s office or in the hospital. The focus, of course, would be to extend coverage to those who could not be covered through their employers or could not afford to be. He hoped to help “millions of additional people who do not now have, but who could afford to purchase, health insurance.”

“Because the strength of our nation is in its people, their good health is a proper national concern; healthy Americans live more rewarding, more productive and happier lives. Fortunately, the nation continues its advance in bettering the health of all its people,” he said, pointing to “intensified research” that has increased our knowledge of heart disease and cancer, two primary scourges of society.

The president assured the American people that there would be “no government competition with private insurance carriers”, as the plan would largely be a safety net for the existing companies — the government would create a “reasonable” fund to underwrite the private carriers. The press secretary said that only a quarter of the proposed fund would kickstart the program and be expanded at a later date. Those paying attention will notice that a similar, but more limited, plan was proposed in the previous year and was overwhelmingly disliked by the Republicans in Congress. Cabinet officials had already met with specialists in the insurance industry and health professions, as well as unnamed “interested citizens” in order to find new and innovative solutions.

He asked for increased aid over the next five years to train nurses and for grants to bolster mental health projects, and even money to help build clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. An exact figure was not given. Currently, according to the White House, millions of people are receiving care through public assistance funded by federal grants. These grants and the care they provide have been labeled “far from adequate” by the president. “Too frequently the local hospitals, clinics, or nursing homes required for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease either do not exist or are badly out of date.”

Expanded health benefits would also target mothers and children, particularly children with disabilities or special health needs. Facilities for the mentally ill would be given additional notice. The hope is that within the next four years, “we should be restoring to useful lives most persons who became disabled and who can be rehabilitated and returned to employment… In human terms, this will be heartwarming achievement.”

The plan, interestingly enough, did not only extend to all Americans, but offered an open hand to the world, as well. An increase in aid to the World Health Organization was requested. While Americans by and large live healthy lives, “for half of mankind, disease and disability are a normal condition of life.” He claimed that “this incalculable burden not only causes poverty and distress, and impedes economic development, but provides a fertile field for the spread of [opposing ideologies].”

Perhaps you have caught on by now, but this is not 2009 and not President Barack Obama. The plan above was presented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, and just as with comprehensive health reform today, it faced strong opposition and ultimately died. What faced it then? Opponents on both sides of the issue attacked it as dangerous and unnecessary. The Chamber of Commerce claimed it was not needed: “The record shows that private insurance organizations are fulfilling their responsibility to make adequate insurance coverage available on a sound basis.” On the other end of the political spectrum, organized labor attacked the Eisenhower approach as “inadequate” and “ineffective.” Even the American Medical Association feared that reinsurance would “provide a vehicle which can be amended and can then lead to compulsory health insurance and socialized medicine.”

Today, we see the charges of “socialism” and “government control” hurled at the president. But comparing Obama to past presidents — including anti-communist Republicans such as Eisenhower — makes it clear that the socialist label is false and nothing more than a red herring (no pun intended). President Obama has considered funding programs by raising the top tax rate back to 39%. Such conservative commentators as Bill O’Reilly of Fox News have defined this hike as socialism. Yet, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, the top tax rate was 50%. Moreover, in the Richard Nixon years, the top tier was 70%. And then we have Dwight David Eisenhower with an astounding 91%.

Eisenhower was no stranger to using tax dollars to create or expand government programs. He requested grants to combat smog and water pollution, which could have been written off as state or local matters. In 1956, he expanded social security to cover those with disabilities, raising the tax rate for both employers and employees in the process. Possibly his most ambitious federal program? The creation of the interstate highway system for the purpose of both transportation and national defense. The inclusion of “defense” as a justification surely helped secure votes as America transitioned from anti-fascist to anti-communist in the McCarthy Era.

As a side issue, we can safely say that almost all the justifications for calling Obama socialist, a label that infuriates real socialists, could be used to call past conservative leaders the same thing, which clearly they were not. We need not look any further than Richard Nixon.

Obama is allegedly an extreme leftist because he favors ending a bloody and unpopular war, and has reached out his hand to “appease” our enemies in such countries as Iran. Yet, it was Nixon, not a Democrat like Lyndon Johnson, who brought the Vietnam War to a close and ended the draft. Likewise, in the middle of the Cold War, it was Nixon who took a historic trip to Communist China to improve international relations in 1972. These matters have little to do with health care, but serve as examples to illustrate that such ad hominem attacks on the president are simply that: hollow epithets with no substance and a multitude of historical counterexamples.

For further reading on the history of health reform, I recommend the book “Dead on Arrival”, by Colin Gordon and published by Princeton University Press. Next month, I will summarize the annual Fighting Bob Fest taking place September 12, 2009 at the Sauk County Fairgrounds in Baraboo. Anyone interested in progressive politics and/or muckraking journalism is strongly urged to attend. Find out more at

Gavin Schmitt ( has been called sick in the head, but there’s no medical advance that can treat what he has.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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