BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Barack Obama may have finally met his match.
The president came to Boston Wednesday to drum up popular support for his beleaguered health care law.
He was contending with a force much larger than any he has battled so far.
Sure, he overcame unimaginable odds to become the nation’s first African-American president and to later win re-election during a global economic downturn.
More recently he all but rescued the world from economic disaster when he stared down a group of rabid Republicans over the debt ceiling, saving the United States economy from default (till the next showdown, at least).
But that does not mean he can take on the iconic Red Sox and win.
Obama spoke mid-afternoon in downtown Boston, just a couple of hours before and a few blocks away from Game 6 of the World Series, an event that in this baseball-crazy town is akin to the soccer and cricket World Cups combined.
That fact did not escape the president. "I am well aware that the presidential visit is not the biggest thing going on in Boston," Obama joked.
His choice of venue was ironic, really. Faneuil Hall was where, in 2006, then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed Massachusetts' Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care, before going on to lose to Obama in the presidential race of 2012.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The new federal system, informally known as “Obamacare,” has certainly had a rough ride. It’s been subjected to more than 40 attempts to repeal, defund or neuter it, and has survived a constitutional challenge. Now it’s under attack from millions of Americans who are finding that the president’s assurances that they could keep their old plans might have been a bit optimistic.
What’s more, they are having an almost impossible time finding new plans because the government health care website has faced problems that defy the word “glitch.”
The Obama administration is trading snipes with contractors over the snafu, but this is not helping people get insurance easily.
Opponents of Obamacare paint it as an assault on US freedom and liberty. Republican stalwart Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, memorably compared it to slavery in the litany of bad things to happen in the US — a charge which was all the more resonant because Carson is himself African American.
House Speaker John Boehner has said on more than one occasion that Obamacare would “ruin the best health care delivery system in the world.”
He may not have heard the news.
The US spends more and gets less for health care than almost any other developed nation.
A recent Bloomberg ranking placed the US 43rd out of 46 countries in terms of health care efficiency. Only Serbia and Brazil ranked lower. International powerhouses such as Algeria and Malaysia, not to mention China, Thailand and Bulgaria, scored higher.
“Why do we spend so much to get so little?” the New England Journal of Medicine asked, a bit plaintively, in 2010.
But Americans with gold-plated health insurance and a comfortable lifestyle will never be convinced they are not living in paradise.
Take “Miss Helen,” a well-heeled southern belle from Mississippi interviewed by GlobalPost last year.
“This is still the best country in the world. We don’t want any of that socialized medicine here,” she said. “We may have problems, but at least we’re free.”
The use of the “S” word to discredit Obama's Affordable Care Act is nothing new, and has been remarkably effective. For a generation that grew up during the Cold War and survived the McCarthy era, calling someone a “socialist” was just about the worst insult imaginable.
Just last week Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly staged an entire segment on Obamacare under the title “Here Comes Socialism,” and told his viewers “that’s what Obamacare is all about — taking from those who can afford health care to provide for those who cannot.”
In case anyone missed the point, he spelled it out: “That’s a form of communism because no country could afford those payments without seizing the assets of everybody else.”
Keep in mind that O’Reilly is one of the top-rated news anchors in the country.
But back to Miss Helen. When asked about countries like Sweden, which has universal health care paid for by the state but maintains a democratic system, she all but exploded.
“Well, I don’t much care for their moral values there,” she said. “Plus, don’t they all kill themselves?”
Actually, Miss Helen, Sweden has one of the more successful health systems on the planet, according to Robert Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell University, who spent some time in Sweden studying the economics of health care.
Writing in The New York Times in June, he rendered this judgment: “The Swedish system performs superbly … health outcomes are far better in Sweden [than in the United States] along virtually every dimension.” That's despite what he says is “far more government involvement than we are ever likely to see under Obamacare.”
Bloomberg, by the way, placed Sweden in the top 10 for efficiency in health care.
The highest-ranked country in the Bloomberg study was Hong Kong, where “the universal health care system involves heavy government participation; its own health secretary calls public medicine the ‘cornerstone’ of the system.”
Hong Kong, by the way, also has the distinction of being considered the world’s freest economy, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Other stars in the Heritage Foundation freedom pantheon include Singapore, Australia and Switzerland, all of which are in the top 10 of Bloomberg’s efficient health care ranking.
'Good luck to you, and the Red Sox'
My grandmother was a lifelong Red Sox fan, which meant that for most of her life she was frustrated, angry and bitter. She last saw the Sox win a World Series in 1918, when she was a young mother of twin boys. She did not live until the magic year of 2004, when the Red Sox overcame their 86-year “curse” to win the Series in four straight games against the St. Louis Cardinals — the same team they’ll be playing tonight at Fenway Park.
One of her favorite sayings was “Good luck to you, and the Boston Red Sox,” a phrase her grandchildren learned to dread. It meant that whatever venture was under discussion was doomed to failure.
If she were alive now, my grandmother might throw the same advice to the president, as he tries to rescue his signature legislative achievement from public relations hell.
The Red Sox, however, escaped their troubled history, and may do so again this week. Can Obama do the same?