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Media Beat

Media myth: Obama's make-or-break health care



Of all the myths about the Obama administration and health care, perhaps none is more prevalent — or more speculative — than the idea that the fate of his presidency hinges on the result of his efforts to achieve “health care reform.”

It sounds nice and dramatic. The reporters and pundits who swirl around Washington love it so much that they can’t let it go. It’s the hyperbolic journalistic gift that keeps on giving — and giving me a headache.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but my tolerance for media mythology seems to be receding over the years, especially when the main basis for the mythology seems to be that it just might turn out to be selffulfilling.

Say it often enough — on front pages, in newsweeklies, on National Public Radio and television news — and pretty soon everybody knows that the entire Obama presidency will stand or fall on whether he can sign landmark health care reform into law this year. Yes, everybody knows it, even if it isn’t true.

Health care is hugely important in human terms and for the nation’s economy as a whole. But health care is a subset of the economy, not the other way around. And the economic realities of the country will in large measure determine Obama’s political future, including whether he’s able to win re-election to the White House.

What’s more, aside from the economy, there are other matters — notably, the escalating war in Afghanistan — bound to have major political effects on the Obama presidency.

Even the usually astute Paul Krugman has fed the mythology beast. Days ago, after lauding the pillars of the presidential health care reform proposal, his syndicated New York Times column warned: “knock away any of the four main pillars of reform, and the whole thing will collapse — and probably take the Obama presidency down with it.”

Journalists — even a lot of very good ones — like to make such declarative and sweeping assessments. Often, they’re not just chronicling a first draft of history; they’re also laboring to pour current events into a mold that’s based on very subjective judgments.

Obama is partly responsible for the volume of the media drum rolls that tell us with increasingly urgency that the health care storms could land his ship of state on the rocks. He has certainly strived to dramatize the enactment of an administration backed health care overhaul as a sink-or-swim national priority. Too bad it isn’t a better plan.

In many ways — as Republican pressure and centrist Democratic sniping steadily reduce the “public option” to a plan scarcely worth fighting for — that’s the problem. The media emphasis is so intensely focused on whether Obama can get a health care bill passed that it often seems to be a secondary media matter as to what the bill actually will do for health care in the United States.

For those who want Medicare for all — also known as single-payer health care — the media prognostications and Capitol Hill horseracing are largely beside the point. The matter of whether President Obama can get his way in Congress on the health care issue is preoccupying the journalistic political establishment, which seems notably less interested in how that way is increasingly corporate.

The continued dominance of the insurance industry is the key subtext of the health care battle that has been raging in Washington. But that dominance is routinely left out of the news media’s laser-beam concentration on whether a monumental health care law will emerge to save Obama’s presidency. We should be much more concerned about whether such a law will save lives.

©2009 Creators Syndicate

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