October 23rd, 2009
09:31 PM ET

Are we asking enough of ourselves?

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David Gergen | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

President Obama and a Democratic Congress may be on the verge of passing various legislative initiatives that in ordinary times would likely be hailed as historic milestones. But will they be bold enough to meet the tests of the extraordinary times in which we live?

Consider the reform of health insurance that Congress is likely to pass before Christmas. By any normal measure, the President’s signature on such a bill would be an event of enormous significance. After all, seven other Presidents have tried to provide universal insurance coverage to the public; Barack Obama may well be the first to succeed. Some argue that it may be the most important social legislation since the Great Depression.

Yet experts who understand health care would argue that it will probably accomplish only half of what needs to be done. This is of concern since, as the saying goes, it doesn't work to leap a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps. It is worth remembering that the President himself has frequently declared that we face two huge challenges in health care: providing universal coverage AND bringing down the spiraling costs of care. Sadly, the bill that is shaping up will do precious little to “bend the curve” of health costs.

Massachusetts is often cited as a model of the health reform that Democrats are seeking this year: the law it passed a few years ago has indeed brought universal coverage (only 3 percent of the state’s population is no longer covered) but it has failed to bring down costs, and premiums in Massachusetts are the highest in the country.

The same general story is emerging from the President’s efforts to address climate change with comprehensive legislation called “cap and trade.” The House of Representatives has passed such legislation and prospects are growing that the Senate may actually overcome strong resistance and pass a bill next year. Again, by most normal standards, that would be considered a milestone.

Yet experts on the environment know full well that the cap and trade bill has been so watered down in the House that it will fail to bring carbon emissions under control with anything like the urgency that scientists say is necessary.

The inability of the United States to pass bold legislation this year has already reduced hopes that a successor to the Kyoto Treaty can be negotiated in Copenhagen this December, when nations from around the world assemble for what has been seen as one of the most important environmental gatherings ever held. China and India will not come along with a new treaty unless they see the United States and Europe also taking dramatic steps – and even then, getting their assent will be difficult.

A similar argument can be made about financial regulation – that the need is great, that we may get some legislation from Congress (chances are brightening for consumer protection), but what emerges may be far less than what the times demand.

What we are seeing is that the challenges facing the United States have become so enormous and so urgent that even with legislative achievements that would once be considered breakthroughs, it looks like we will fall frustratingly short of what we must do to remain a great people.

The President’s team argues that compromise is inevitable in politics and that we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Fair enough. If I were in the White House today, I might well be making the same arguments. But from an outside perspective – one not burdened by the agonizing efforts that the White House has made to get this far – it also seems we must be realistic with ourselves.

We must look reality squarely in the eye and recognize that the times demand that we not settle for climbing ordinary mountains; we must hoist ourselves up and climb extraordinary ones.

Are we asking enough of ourselves? Not yet, it appears.

Filed under: 360° Radar • David Gergen • Raw Politics
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Doug

    Mr. Gergen:

    What do you think should be included in "climate change" legislation?

    (Enjoyed your recent speech at USC.)

    October 25, 2009 at 10:57 pm |
  2. Doug

    If the Democrats did not have to contend with Republican opposition, they would be able to and would pass bold meaningful legislation.

    October 25, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  3. Joanna Cole

    The first thing we need to do is to pay taxes at the same rate we did in the 1960's - something like a 80-90 percent highest marginal tax rate. Then we'd have more than enough money to fund health care etc. And life was still good way back then.

    October 25, 2009 at 4:45 pm |
  4. Steven R. Phillips

    I'm a college professor, and I've been reading Mr. Gergen's words of wisdom for almost twenty years. I believe he is–and has always been–right on target.

    I believe President Obama and his team are doing great, considering the many messes they inherited. Super Woman and Super Man combined could not solve every problem the U.S. now faces–especially in one year, or four, or even eight.

    Mr. Gergen, would you please consider running for president when President Obama's presidency comes to an end?

    Steven in AR

    October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm |
  5. Arthur Park

    So many problems originate from peoples' failure to plan realistically or take reponsibilty for actions due to apathy or/or ignorance. Multiple unplannned pregnancy, voluntary long term unemployment( laziness), spending and never saving. The average guy or gal make such a mess of life that the BIG problems we face now will be ignored possibly leading to our extinction.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:56 pm |
  6. Dale Goode


    I concur with your conclusions.

    With regard to healthcare, defacto rationing in healthcare has existed since healthcare was first delivered. The desired policy would to be to ration based on an "appropriate set of values". Unfortunately, those values will forever be a matter of political debate.

    Let us hope our legisatrors (of all political affiliations) will have the courage to accurately identify and address the issue. Once so identified, the illusion that all are entitled "Rolls Royce" medicine may be displaced by the ECONOMIC realities that truly define this issue.

    Thanks much for you insightful work.

    St. Louis, MO

    October 23, 2009 at 10:49 pm |
  7. John

    I want to thank Mr.Gergen for providing insightful commentary to current issues. I agree with his commentary and believe we now have an opportunity for bold initiatives and it would be unfortunate to settle for mediocrity.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm |
  8. Eric W.

    To Cindy:

    I agree that the politicians have failed us- on many levels, particularly if you consider the condition of many state governments as well. In fact, I would argue that what is transpiring now is an unfortunate confluence of several important national issues that have been neglected and passed down from one administration to the next- both Democrat and Republican- over a period of decades. These long-term issues such as health care, social security, and financial regulation, have reached a critical level at precisely the same time that the short term effects from reckless government spending during the last 8 years has reached an apex. This is truly a sad state of affairs and I think there is blame to go around.

    In effect, the potential long-term ramifications of continual delay tactics have been ignored for short-term political objectives. This is an inherent weakness in the American political system that should not be underestimated. Political tenures are too short and self-aggrandizing for many politicians to consider or even bother with the long-term ramifications of their decisions. Our current predicament is but a testament to the continually poor economic and military decisions that have been made over decades.

    But I do disagree with you on one point. The American people are every bit at fault because we are the ones have continually allowed political stall tactics and an unwillingness to tackle difficult issues to go on for years without holding those same politicians accountable. Americans have traditionally had very low voter turnout compared to other countries around the world. How can we blame anyone but ourselves? And to make the situation more dire, most Americans have fallen victim to confirmation bias rather than really considering both sides of the issues. People would rather listen to what they already believe than question the validity of their beliefs regardless of whether all of the factual information points to their beliefs being wrong. Some media outlets have unfortunately also done nothing constructive to alleviate this and in fact have even encouraged more of it.

    So I humbly ask, how is this country to move forward under such circumstances? Mr. Gergen's article is dead on- it is going to take an unprecedented movement from within.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:07 pm |
  9. Chris W

    David, your analysis is thoughful. I appreciate the lack of partisan bile as well. Yes, our challenges are massive. Our expectations also seem oddly unrealistic. Fix it now or we will vote you all out of ofice next year? Let's grow up and stop being silly- this stuff can't be fixed in one year. We will be lucky if it can be fixed in ten.

    October 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm |
  10. Greg Peter


    I think your argument is more compelling when applied to global warming than healthcare. Our spending to guarantee better healthcare for those without it can be changed when we emerge from recession. Its not clear there is a chasm and its certainly better to get something done than noting. But the decision to pollute now isn't reversible at all. If we fail here is may be too late before the issue is revisited to do much good at all.

    October 23, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Lawrence

    The US population is fractured, and has been since the1940's. And the fracture is much deeper than the sometimes cartoon-like fracture evident in the debates between Republican and Democratic ideologues.

    I agree with everything you say, Mr. Gergen. But just as you can't put weight on a badly fractured leg, how will bold Congressional solutions every come to pass while half population would seem to pathologically fearful of government action/intervention of any kind?

    During the Presidential campaign, many were hopeful that Barrack Obama could somehow heal the fracture. As the months pass, that hope diminishes, I sorry to say.

    October 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm |
  12. Stu

    The problem we have is controlling the cost of health care. By first enacting reforms (regulatory, technical, process) and reducing costs we can then improve access to cost-effective care. Trying to expand health insurance coverage without first reducing costs not only makes existing problems worse, but fuels the cost spiral. Doing both at the same time means doing both poorly; a classic case of sub-optimization.

    First reduce cost, then expand coverage. Once cost is reduced it will be far easier to sell universal/expanded coverage.

    October 23, 2009 at 9:00 pm |
  13. Larry

    It will not happen in our lifetimes. The current generations, young and old bring too much diverse baggage with them to prevent the attainment of common goals.
    Perhaps in another 150 years the America of then will have progressed enough to throw aside those petty differences in our society, which seem so important to us today, and allow everyone to be a part of what our founding fathers bled and died for as the rights of all Americans.
    Right now all we are focused on is I & ME.

    October 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm |
  14. charles pace

    Mr. Gergen's concerns are well-founded, but he is focused on the "canyon" between where we are and where we must be. There are significant opportunities to shorten the distance ... and then attempt the leap.

    October 23, 2009 at 6:48 pm |
  15. Lisa in CA

    Suffice it to say, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions".

    Rather than asking 'are we asking enough of ourselves?', ask instead - which is more important - to get it done now or get it done right? I'd offer the latter because getting it done right means we accomplish our goals; getting it done now means it will cost us more in the long-run.

    October 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  16. Cindy

    I think we the people are doing all that we can! We pay our taxes and work out jobs to help the economy. It is our elected officials and government as a whole that is failing us! They are so tied up with making everything all about them and their interests they could care less about us real people that they are supposed to represent. IMO we need to get rid of them all and start over. Maybe then we could actually fix this country!


    October 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm |
  17. Mike, formerly from Syracuse, NY

    David G., you don't mention that the wait for doctors in MA has become extreme. I've relocated to southern NH, and when I tried to see a new doctor in NH I was told the wait was 6 months! Defacto rationing is happening.

    October 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm |