And, to tell you the truth, I don’t care. Because the young Senator from Illinois is saying some wildly courageous things about the state of American politics. And, ultimately, that’s what matters most.
Not long ago, Obama traveled to Michigan to talk about the state of car-making in America. It’s not hard to picture how a less-brave politician might have handled this trip. He or she would issue a few platitudes about American ingenuity, throw in some crowd-pleasing Japan-bashing, and pay tribute to the United Auto Workers. End of photo op, end of pander, beginning of large checks flowing into campaign coffers.
Obama, however, decided on a slightly different approach. He didn’t bash Japan. He bashed Detroit – not the actual city, which hardly needs bashing, but the symbol of faded American industry.
At a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club, which sounds like the punch-line to an awful joke about post-industrial America, Obama complained that U.S. automakers had done far too little to improve fuel efficiency. In fact, he said, American fuel efficiency standards for cars are the same as they were 20 years ago, when Osama bin Laden was fighting the Russians, not us.
Of course, 20 years ago, American automakers still believed they were in the car-building business. More recently, they gave up on good old sedans and started flooding the market with dreadful SUVs. Our friends who control much of the world’s oil supply could not have arranged a better turn of events. Get Americans even more dependent on foreign oil, then jack up the price! What a plan!
Planned or not, that is the result of 20 years of absurd industrial and energy policy. These days, American car companies are turning out multiple brands of SUVs – manly brands like the Hummer, SUV Lites for soccer moms, and so on. In the mean time, Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda not only have taken over the market for sensible sedans, but are leading the way in producing hybrid vehicles.
What a revolting turn of events.
So Senator Obama let Detroit have it. He wants fuel efficiency standards to move north, until they hit about 40 miles a gallon by 2022. At the moment, our fleet of conventional sedans gets about 27 miles to the gallon, and light trucks get 24 mpg.
It’s time to consign the Hummer and its ilk to history’s dustbin, where they belong. They are nothing but national security risks on wheels. While Obama didn’t go that far in his Detroit remarks, it’s pretty clear where he stands on the state of American auto-making. He said he wants to bring the industry into the 21st Century. At this point, I’d settle for the final quarter of the 20th Century.
A couple of weeks after his Detroit speech, the Senator hit on a theme that also has implications for the auto industry: Health insurance. American car companies have been especially hard hit by the skyrocketing cost of health care for their retirees. Health costs add about $1,500 to the price of a vehicle.
On the day after Memorial Day, Senator Obama released a proposal for what he called universal health care. It is interesting to note that one of his opponents in the Democratic race for president, John Edwards, attacked the Obama plan because, the campaign said, it doesn’t mandate coverage for everyone. But experts say it covers nearly everyone in one way or another, enough to qualify as universal coverage.
The campaigns will now spar over details, but the conversation itself it telling. Universal health care has been derided as a communist plot, a wacko socialist scheme, and just plain inefficient. Now, it is part of the mainstream dialogue in a presidential campaign.
Obama proposes to pay for the program by allowing George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich to expire. Now, you can be sure that some will describe this was a tax increase, and will condemn the Senator as nothing more than a tax-hiker.
So be it. Voters have to understand, and I believe they do, that taxes indeed are the price we pay for a civilized society. We’re paying for a war in Iraq with borrowed billions. We can’t expect to do the same for health insurance.
Senator Obama sees the connection between the state of American car-making and our deplorable health-care system. He shrewdly offered Detroit a deal: Start making more fuel-efficient cars, and the government will offer some help in paying for health insurance.
A spokesman for General Motors dismissed the hint of a quid pro quo, saying that health care is a broad issue not unique to G.M. True enough. But the automakers seem to be suffering more than other industries.
Health care and energy dependence have to be among the top five issues, perhaps even the top two issues, in any debate about domestic policy. Under the current administration, things have gotten immensely worse on both fronts.
The question for Campaign ’08 is whether the public will be content with candidates who avoid leadership, or whether it will support candidates with the courage to confront the status-quo.
Barak Obama clearly is a challenge to business as usual. His high position in the polls suggests that the times are changing, again.