POTUS Under Pressure

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Wednesday’s news conference faced POTUS off with a very feisty press, whose members are apparently fatigued of the wide apprehension that he cradles the adoring media in the palm of his hand. All manner of aggressive tactics hitherto unknown – save a few tough questions overseas from foreign journalists – came into play: flagrant interruptions, tag-teamed questions, topical non sequitur, ad hominem inquiries about POTUS’s smoking habits, direct insinuations of subterfuge, even some outright griping. POTUS held his own, but snapped back when he needed to and laughed away awkwardness when it was expedient to do so. He displayed his world-class talent for maintaining an affable sort of cool, even as he managed the conversation carefully, setting limits, issuing subtle rewards and punishments as required. As POTUS ended the 55-minute news conference and made his way out of the briefing room, a journalist asked:

May I ask a question about Afghanistan? No questions about Iraq or Afghanistan, sir?

Although POTUS turned his back on this effort to extend the Q&A, any impression that he was ignoring the subject of our misguided wars is unfair. Blame for any topical omissions, I’m afraid, has to rest on the questioners not the questioned. The preferred issue was, of course, Iran, specifically, the violent suppression of political demonstrations (30 dead, 200 wounded) following what appears to be a stolen election and a patchy attempt to preserve the status quo. Surely, POTUS was prepared for a lot of nervous handwringing over the issue, with many Republican critics urging him to take a much harder line since the June 12 election.

I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

Long bored by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, John McCain and those of the imperialist mindset in both houses of Congress would love nothing more than to see the U.S. invade Iran or at least drop some bombs. Thankfully, however, POTUS has read his history books. Though he wasn’t even born, POTUS recalls that previous U.S. “activism” in Iran has turned out badly. In 1953, the CIA engineered the assassination of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, facilitated the overthrow of his democratically elected, moderate government, and arranged for the subsequent installation of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who in turn presided over an authoritarian regime so repressive and draconian – locking up thousands of detractors, wreaking havoc on Iran’s civil society and educated middle class – that the 1979 theocratic revolution that unseated him and elevated his rival Ayatollah Khomenei became all but inevitable.

Ignoring this unpleasant history completely, reporters took shot after shot concerning POTUS’s supposed silence, timidity, and restraint regarding interference with the internal politics of sovereign Iran:

Jennifer Loven, Associated Press: Is there any redline that your administration won’t cross, where that offer [to engage in direct talks] will be shut off?

Nico Pitney, Huffington Post: Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad?

Major Garrett, FOX News: You said about Iran that you were appalled and outraged. What took you so long to say those words?

Chip Reid, CBS News: Were you influenced at all by John McCain and Lindsey Graham accusing you of being timid and weak?

POTUS, for his part, remained stalwart in his articulation of a few core themes, none of them sufficiently newsworthy to satisfy either the overcaffeinated media or the rabid warmongers in Congress. First and foremost, respecting the sovereignty of nations, a novel approach to foreign policy:

We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path. . . . But just to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal.

The protests and demonstrations are an internal matter, not fomented by Western meddlers:

And the Iranian Government should understand that how they handle the dissent within their own country, generated indigenously, internally, from the Iranian people, will help shape the tone not only for Iran’s future but also its relationship to other countries. . . . And so, ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian Government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that’s why I’ve been very clear: Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their Government.

POTUS exercised savvy caution, well aware that any overstepping in his rhetoric would be readily exploited by Ahmadinejad’s propaganda machine:

My role has been to say, the United States is not going to be a foil for the Iranian Government to try to blame what’s happening on the streets of Tehran on the CIA or on the White House, that this is an issue that is led by and given voice to the frustrations of the Iranian people. . . . This is not an issue about the United States; this is about an issue of the Iranian people.

The White House even went to the admirable effort of providing Farsi and Arabic transcripts of POTUS’s opening remarks on its website. The message was clear: we witness your suffering, we acknowledge your efforts, but this is not our business. Still, POTUS could not satisfy the media’s voracity for something new, something breaking, and journalists, impatient and under pressure, often dig for it when it’s just not there.

Jennifer Loven, Associated Press: So should there be consequences for what’s happened so far?

Major Garrett, FOX News: Are Iranian diplomats still welcome at the Embassy on Fourth of July, sir?

Chip Reid, CBS News: So there’s no news in your statement today?

Chuck Todd, NBC News: But shouldn’t the Iranian regime know that there are consequences?

Consequences? What exactly do these heavy-breathing scribes have in mind? What indeed do McCain and Graham expect in practical terms? Did George H.W. Bush bluster about consequences for the far more horrific repression exhibited in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre (at least 200 dead, thousands wounded)? Did the Soviet Union threaten consequences for the U.S. National Guard’s firing on unarmed students at Kent State University in 1970 (4 dead, 9 wounded)? Although sober observers around the world discern the wisdom in POTUS’s approach toward Iran, his delicate word choices are apparently making the reactionary set very anxious. Let’s recall that the Mighty McCain had attacked POTUS on the campaign trail for advocating “restraint from both sides” in the August conflagration that broke out between Georgia and Russia. In the mythology of American exceptionalism, only the Other Side must show restraint.

The second hot topic was health care reform and POTUS’s insistence that new legislation include some sort of “public option” that would extend and improve health care coverage for those 50 million Americans currently uninsured or underinsured. Though poll data consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans support expanded government-subsidized health care, some are nervous that private insurers would be priced out of the market:

David Jackson, USA Today. Won’t that drive private insurers out of business?

The President. Well, why would it drive private insurers out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care, if they tell us that they’re offering a good deal, then why is it that the Government, which they say can’t run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That’s not logical.

ABC’s Jake Tapper later characterized POTUS’s appeal to logic as “Spock-like” but pressed him to assert whether or not provision for the “public option” was “nonnegotiable,” again groping for conflict. After a joke about the “Spock reference [being] a crack on my ears,” POTUS didn’t give up on logic, however, which in any case, he has in his favor in this debate.

I think that there is a legitimate concern if the public plan was simply eating off the taxpayer trough that it would be hard for private insurers to compete. If, on the other hand, the public plan is structured in such a way where they’ve got to collect premiums and they’ve got to provide good services, then if what the insurance companies are saying is true, that they’re doing their best to serve their customers, that they’re in the business of keeping people well and giving them security when they get sick, they should be able to compete.

Certainly, we can take POTUS’s word about “healthy debates” to heart here. Is health care a right (and therefore, the government’s responsibility to protect) or merely a privilege (and therefore, a private concern)? What’s interesting to me is that education, a public service difficult to separate theoretically from health care in my mind, does not appear to raise the same controversy. In fact, the inverse situation obtains. Private schools (in existence since colonial days) and now charter schools are said to put salutary market pressure on public schools to perform better and compete for students. The school voucher system, lauded by free-market devotees on both sides of the political spectrum, in fact, is very similar to POTUS’s proposed health care exchange. This analogy argues that context and legacy matter more than pragmatism and common sense in dividing our loyalties. A largely private health care system threatened by public competition meets a largely public education system threatened by private competition. Even Spock would see the profound irony of our insistence on framing these positions as adversarial.

I take those advocates of the free market to heart when they say that the free market is innovative and is going to compete on service and is going to compete on their ability to deliver good care to families. And if that’s the case, then this just becomes one more option. If it’s not the case, then I think that that’s something that the American people should know.

On the flip side, it might be worth having another healthy debate about why health care organizations (insurers, providers, billing agencies, etc.) should be run as for-profit enterprises in the first place. Pursuing the above analogy, most private schools and universities are still operating on non-profit guidelines even within a capitalistic superstructure. They compete for customers, sources of funding, and prestige, but they don’t turn a profit in the way other businesses do. That is to say, the so-called free market is not necessarily predicated on financial gain alone. The principle of competitive self-interest readily applies to other forms of “currency”: customer satisfaction, industry reputation, community relations, mission fulfillment, etc. But we’ll leave POTUS to address that question on another day. For the moment, he’s got his hands full battling the 24-hour news cycle, which has no time for antiquarian relics such as logic.

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