In a speech at the Gates Foundation's Goalkeepers event on Sept. 20, former President Barack Obama discussed community activism and human rights, both nationally and globally. While the tenor of the speech was largely positive, Obama spoke about the Republicans' Graham-Cassidy health care bill -- the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- and said it would inflict "real human suffering" if it passed. With frustration in his voice, he said this is the "50th or 60th" time a repeal has been attempted. (According to Newsweek, as of July 2017, GOP politicians had tried at least 70 times to repeal the ACA.)
Obama then called on ordinary citizens to "stand up, and muster the determination to try and try again" to fight on behalf of health care, despite the frustration of doing this seemingly every few weeks.
He began his speech by marking the progress the human race has made in the last half-century: more rights for women and people of color, easier access to health care, a drop in extreme poverty. The world, he argued, is a better place today, despite "the steady stream of bad news and cynicism we're fed on television and Twitter."
All because of community activism. All because of people who said, "enough" and decided to engage and create progress.
But with that progress come people who push back, people who see the world, not as "we" but as "us versus them," according to Obama.
Though he did not mention the Graham-Cassidy bill by name, it was clear that the latest attempt to repeal the ACA was on his mind. He said,
Yes, there are people trying to undo that hard-won progress, for the 50th or 60th time, with a bill that will raise costs, reduce coverage, and roll back protections for older Americans and people with pre-existing conditions -- the cancer survivor, the expecting mother, the child with asthma or autism for whom coverage will once again become unaffordable and out of reach. All without any demonstrable economic, actuarial, or even human rationale for pushing such a bill. And yes, it may be frustrating that we have to mobilize every couple months to keep our leaders from inflicting real human suffering on their constituents. But that's how progress is won.
The Graham-Cassidy bill, so named for its architects, Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, would rely on block grants rather than tax credits, cost-sharing payments, and other means of paying for health care. According to Graham and Cassidy, the bill would allow states to create their own health care exchanges, but several nonprofits, including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), say that that's not the case.
Instead, approximately 32 million would lose coverage -- more than the universally loathed Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), which failed to pass the Senate this summer. The CBPP also predicts that Americans would see a huge spike in premiums, pre-existing conditions coverage would essentially disappear, and it could potentially collapse the individual insurance market. The effects on the economy would be nothing short of disastrous.
This latest repeal attempt comes after a contentious summer, where several repeal attempts, including a skinny repeal that failed by one vote, were made. Graham-Cassidy is being called a hail Mary, and the GOP's last chance at repeal.
Even Graham himself said in the presser announcing the bill that single-payer is "inevitable" if this bill fails to pass.
Obama called the myriad attempts to eliminate the ACA "aggravating" and "frustrating" and said that, like people in countries that already have universal health care, he is also wondering what's so controversial about providing care for all residents.
The former president also took swipes at President Donald Trump's foreign policy, mentioning the "the rise of nationalist thought, xenophobic sentiment, and a populist politics" -- though he did not mention the current head of state by name.
Trump made a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, in which he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un "rocket man" and said the U.S. would "have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea" if the country continued down its current path. He also discussed the "disasters" of socialism, including socialized health care, which was met with murmurs and even some laughter. He tripped over words, pronouncing, for example, chemical as "chemb-ical" and stumbling over turns of phrase. There was menace and malice in his address.
The differences between the two speeches are pronounced, to say the least.
Despite Obama's irritation, he ended with another call to action:
I believe that each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try. That's what I ask of you today. I ask you to reject cynicism and pessimism, and push forward, in whatever you do, with an infectious, relentless optimism. Not a blind optimism that ignores the scale and scope of our challenges -- but a hard-earned optimism that's rooted in stories of very real progress. The belief that our successes -- however small, however incomplete -- are successes all the same.
The former head of state may be onto something when he talks about the relentless fight for progress: Senator Bernie Sanders, along with about a dozen Democratic senators, recently proposed "Medicare for All" -- essentially single payer for the United States. Perhaps progress isn't as far off as we thought.