Health-Care Reform: Leading with Respect

By Melvin Bray 7-28-2009

Americans are dying for want of health care. Since the 1912 electoral defeat of Republican stalwart Theodore Roosevelt-supporter of universal coverage-we the people have been nationally conscious of this grim fact, yet still find it debatable. It is a debate over cost. It is a debate over privilege. It is a debate over quality, access, fairness, and whether or not health care is a basic human dignity. It is a debate that has raged ad infinitum in this country for more than 100 years. Yet universal coverage finally has a chance of being enacted, with the leadership of Barack Obama.

There are plenty who feel more pessimistic about the nation's chances for meaningful health-care reform, particularly this year. Pundits believe that President Obama needs to be more forceful in prescribing exactly what the details of legislation should be, if he hopes to avoid seeing it derailed. But the president, thus far, doesn't seem to be listening to them. For a chance at martyrdom, many liberals are willing to die on every hill of every aspect of their ideological notions of how American health care should look. However, the president seems loath to hold their swords while they run upon them. On the other hand, the loyal opposition is so determined to prove themselves courageous enough to take on a yet popular president that they are willing to attribute to him ideas not his own, just so they can attack. Maybe this is just one tried and true tactic in a larger strategy to discredit any effort toward health-care reform. Either way, the president seems disinclined to engage them on such hackneyed terms. Perhaps it's because he knows these have all failed in the past: the exhaustive critiques as well as the supposed alternatives.

Mr. Obama's resistance to even the most seductive of these pointless tacks undoubtedly increases the likelihood of success. Still, the chief reason health-care reform remains plausible in a climate of such uncertainty is that, through it all, the president has remained determined to demonstrate a long ignored, perhaps unprecedented, respect for his coequal branches of government. This seems strange and disconcerting to many, thus the pedantic criticism. It is so unfamiliar that many on both sides of the aisle refuse to acknowledge it as useful. "He's not playing the game." "He's not following the script." News outlets seem conflicted on how to report it, seldom naming it, which may not be all together their fault. The administration hasn't been the best at aphorizing Obama's 'leadership through respect.'

As a nation we have grown comfortable with the idea of a Grand Pater, as it were, in the White House, telling everyone what to do. We've forgotten that Commander-in-Chief is an outward-facing, military-only role, not the way the Chief Executive is to function with a coequal legislative branch. He could, but that sort of antagonism just makes one an easier target; it carries no favor. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, on the other hand, goes a long way. So President Obama's way has been to listen, to synthesize, and then to share: to "seek first to understand, then to be understood," as Stephen Covey would say. His doing so compels others to. This is how he leads. Then he steps back and trusts Congress to do the job of legislating, knowing that the dialectic process laid out by our founding fathers-if engaged in, if respected-is capable of producing a much more balanced piece of legislation than he could have dictated. It works because it earns people's incontrovertible participation in the process even if they later refuse to endorse the results.

Now this is all hypothetical, of course. It concerns what might be just over the cusp of the horizon. Still, part of the rationale for optimism rests in the fact that leading with respect has worked for Mr. Obama in the past. When the economic crisis came to a head last September, while Sen. McCain was torn between the suspension of his campaign and appearing on David Letterman, then-Senator Obama calmly returned to Washington and helped facilitate Senate deliberations on the matter: asking questions, offering ideas, finding consensus. And who can forget the Rachel Maddow interview toward the end of the campaign in which she pressed Sen. Obama on whether a change in tactics would be prudent to combat the no-holds-barred October mudslinging? As her liberal angst got the best of her, Obama mused, "I think we're winning," as if to say, "If it's not broken, why fix it?" Beyond his election, we have any number of examples, including, but not limited to, the 2009 stimulus package. Certainly, not everyone endorses the results; however, in the mist of their complaining, opponents were not denied nor did they pass on the opportunity to shape and amend the bill. It ended up far more reflective of diverse interests and concerns than the president originally proposed, which is likely a good thing. Moreover, the process was legislatively veracious enough to win a filibuster-proof majority that included three Republicans, and to help precipitate the defection of one of those Republicans over to the Democratic Party. Not a bad track record for a leadership that many still believe has slim to no chance of prevailing.

Melvin BrayMelvin Bray ( is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, purveyor of sustainability, and believer in possibilities. He is a contributing author to the recent compilation Audacity of Faith: Christian Leaders Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama (Judson Press) and an active participant in the Emergent Village.

To learn more about health-care reform, click here to visit Sojourners' Health-Care Resources Web page.

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