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Shelby Steele cannot imagine that other people think health-care reform is important

obamasigningkid.JPG

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed attempting to explain why Obama stuck to "health-care reform when jobs are a far more pressing problem," Shelby Steele uses the word "grandiosity" four times. He uses some variant of "narcissistic" four times. But the word "uninsured" does not appear even once. Nor does the word "deficit." No mention is made of the stimulus, which is a massive jobs bill that passed before health-care reform was even started, nor of the $154 billion follow-up jobs bill that passed the House in December, nor of the smaller jobs bills the Senate has considered in recent months.

For Steele, it is not even worth considering the possibility that Obama pursued health-care reform -- like a half-dozen or so presidents before him -- because it was important, or even because there was not that much more he could do on jobs. In fact, that is such an absurd suggestion that he does not even feel the need to reject it in his op-ed. He just ignores its possible existence. That makes for a model that has a lot of trouble accounting for Nancy Pelosi and Drew Altman and Atul Gawande and Jonathan Cohn and everyone else who fought for this reform but wasn't named "Barack Obama."

Steele also says that "agree with him or not, you knew what kind of society [Reagan] wanted," but that Obama's vision remains "undefined," forgetting (or not knowing?) that the health-care reform Obama signed into law looks very much like the health-care reform Obama proposed during the campaign. Steele further predicts that "Obama is likely to be the most liberal president in American history," a history that includes both Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed a socialized pension system into law, and Lyndon Johnson, who created two separate single-payer health-care systems.

I have trouble imagining how someone can be interested enough in American politics to want to write an op-ed on the subject, but so unaware -- or uninterested -- in even basic facts about policy that this is the op-ed they'd write.

Photo credit: Jim Young/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 31, 2010; 10:32 AM ET
 
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Comments

You tell 'em, Klein.

Posted by: karlasingh | March 31, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

"I have trouble imagining how someone can be interested enough in American politics to want to write an op-ed on the subject, but so unaware -- or uninterested -- in even basic facts about policy that this is the op-ed they'd write."

What a great line. I agree, but believe me stick around and you'll see this again and again in your chosen line of work here.

I'd suggest that someone like Steele is neither unaware nor uninterested in facts, so much as engaging in willful ignorance of inconvenient facts like the massive number of uninsured and the spiralling out of control costs because that doesnt fit with the "Obama is a narcissist" piece he wanted to write.

Intellectual honesty is a rare commodity in the world of political punditry, it is what it is.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | March 31, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Steele is a party chairman. The purpose of his op ed is not to educate or state a fact-based position on policy. It is to persuade voters either to vote for Republicans or at least not to vote for Democrats.

Posted by: redwards95 | March 31, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

thank you, ezra....

a picture is worth a thousand words.
all you needed to do in this case, was to use the photograph that you wisely chose.

with all of the intelligent and important things there are to write about in this world, and all of the brilliant people there are to write them, why is such a shallow thinker given the privilege of an op-ed? a waste of time, space and creative potential for real ideas.

Posted by: jkaren | March 31, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Shelby Steele, not Michael.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | March 31, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

(and by the way,
very heartening to know that dave weigel and karen tumulty will be joining you over at the washington post!)

Posted by: jkaren | March 31, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

"that the health-care reform Obama signed into law looks very much like the health-care reform Obama proposed during the campaign"

Obama campaign on HCR without a public option, but with an excise tax and an individual mandate? Did I just miss that campaign speech?

Say what you will of Shelby Steele (not a great standard-bearer for the GOP, in no small part because I don't think he takes what he's saying seriously). I agree with Zeppelin that Steel is neither unaware nor uninterested in the facts, but I don't think it's exactly willful ignorance, either, because he had a piece he "wanted" to right. I think he had a job to do--like an essay on the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in high school--and he wrote that essay. If have been more nuanced or objective, he would have gotten a bad grade, so he wrote for the grade. He's writing for the tea party folks because that's how the GOP is reading the Scott Brown victory and the Didi Scozzafava debacle. Lurch to the partisan right. Way to the partisan right!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 31, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

There are no consequences to this kind of willfully lazy punditry. Steele has built a reputation as a black conservative star, one eagerly sought out by the media industrial complex. He can write any crap he wants and the editors and producers will call.

No accountability. It's that simple.

Posted by: scarlota | March 31, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

It's interesting to note the role of the mainstream, non-pundit media in the HCR debate. They were unable to educate the public on the content of the bill, as the very act of doing so would be seen as a legitimization of HCR, and would have countermanded the GOP's strategy of challenging the whole enterprise on an abstract level. It seems there can be no such thing as substantive, non-partisan reporting in the current climate.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 31, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

"For Steele, it is not even worth considering the possibility that Obama pursued health-care reform -- like a half-dozen or so presidents before him -- because it was important, or even because there was not that much more he could do on jobs. In fact, that is such an absurd suggestion that he does not even feel the need to reject it in his op-ed. He just ignores its possible existence."
------------------------------------------

Close, but Steele was critisizing the scale and partisanship more than the actual attempt at reform.

Posted by: Holla26 | March 31, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Scarlota nails it.

The goal is NOT to inform people, the goal is to influence people. Influencing people is much easier when it is divorced from reality. Why do you think Republicans said they, "Created their own reality," back during the Bush years?

This is why it can be so difficult to argue with some people. They really believe the nonsense they hear on hate radio/Fox. No matter what evidence you bring to bear you can't convince them because if you disagree with them you are obviously NOT a valid source of information. Rush is never wrong, nor is Hannity, Beck or O'Reilly, and any evidence to the contrary is left-wing agitprop.

The real question is what effect Shelby's silliness will have on independents. I'm guessing not much, but you never know.

Posted by: nisleib | March 31, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

@Ezra: "Shelby Steele, not Michael"

Heh. At least I'm not the only one to make that mistake. Too much time fantasizing about GOP fundraisers at the Club Voyeur, I suppose.

That being said, it's not as bad as the time I confused Shelby Steele with Shelby Foote. Now, that was embarrassing.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 31, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

A disingenious and lazy op-ed in a major newspaper that ignores counterarguments and uses straw men and invented facts to make its point? Say it ain't so!

But seriously folks - Steele wrote a fairly lazy book in which he attempted to project his own race relations theories, personal experiences, and view of who Obama "really was" as a person and "really could be" as a candidate, and ended up being spectacularly wrong. That he continues to do so isn't all that surprising.

Posted by: jlowery1 | March 31, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"Mr. Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author most recently of "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win" (Free Press, 2007)."

Need we look further? And isn't it extraordinary how, once a pundit has a nice academic resume, they get a complete pass on whether anything they write proves to be accurate?

Posted by: herzliebster | March 31, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Frank Rich wrote recently an excellent column that explains the furor of HCR. There is unfortunately a good number of folks out there for whom the image of a black president signing into law so momentous legislation, a young black boy to his side, causes more than a little consternation; add to that a woman Speaker of the House, and you get rage. Steele, of a black father and white mother, early on has shown himself cynical of white support of Obama; now he calls Obama's ambition to task in ways he would never of a white president. Racism, pure and simple.

All that said, one thing I might agree with Steele on is Obama's lack of an ideology. Robert Reich recently mentioned that great leaders don't merely compromise: and this is what Obama did and likes to do (just find out as well as he can what the opposing bid is, and come in at the average between it and his own); great leaders create a new center, a new norm, and bring the country to it.

Hopefully he's done that with making health care more universal. But how does this fit in with FinReg, with carbon and energy, with immigration reform? What's the grand theme, the new center to which he will bring the country?

Reagan's ideology was a constructed image of cowboy independence, as contrived as the Hollywood lots he worked on; and with that prop, he bludgeoned the country into dismantling its government.

Obama began his career as a community organizer, and people say that showed during the campaign. What is the underlying philosophy of community organizing, and how does it apply to the Nation?

Posted by: Lonepine | March 31, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Maybe it's in the name?

Posted by: guyol | March 31, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

"That he continues to do so isn't all that surprising."

It also isn't surprising that outlets like the WSJ will continue to give him a megaphone. But that's the level where the real problem is.

Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people, but most of them don't get published in major newspapers, or get regular opportunities to share their stupidity on TV.

Posted by: rt42 | March 31, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I also love the ongoing paean to Reagan.

Absent the Soviet Union, do we really know what kind of society Reagan wanted? A free society? Then why support the Sandanistas? A democratic society? Then why support Noriega? 'Small government'? ROTFLMAO!!

Reagan portrayed a simplistic movie role in his world-view. As long as you took the lines at face value, then no contradiction.

Posted by: Jaycal | March 31, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I'll bet Steele can imagine that other people believe health care reform to be important, and that FDR/LBJ had policy accomplishments which were more liberal than what Obama achieved with healthcare reform. Writing with those things in mind would probably take away from the point of his piece, which is to tear down Obama.

Posted by: justin84 | March 31, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

While many people wrote pieces during the 2008 Election saying that Obama couldn't win the Presidency, I can think of only one that had the (ahem) courage to put it in book form, and that was Shelby Steele.

http://www.amazon.com/Bound-Man-Excited-About-Obama/dp/B003A02PZK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270053513&sr=8-1

The only thing I'm surprised about, is that you sound surprised he's this much of a numbskull.

Posted by: mpjohn10 | March 31, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

"...Shelby Steele uses the word "grandiosity" four times. He uses some variant of "narcissistic" four times."

It's a beautiful little self-contained irony, isn't it?

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 31, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Shocker, he's from the uber right-wing Hoover Institution.

Posted by: hillgirl8024 | March 31, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Is Obama still a "bound man", only elected because of "white folks guilt", etc.? I'm simply not in the mood for old Shelby today. I'm still laughing about the book he wrote about "Why Obama Can't Win" the election. His book & his op-eds always prove to be false and a poor predictor of the future. Obama must really frustrate him as he continually proves him wrong. Love to see a debate between them.

Posted by: carolerae48 | March 31, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Shelby Steele is a George Will type of pseudo-intellectual. They both think using rarely used multi-syllable words is a sign of intelligence. However, when you read their vacuous writings you realize that, in the words of James Brown, "...their talking loud and saying nothing. Just saying nothing..."

Posted by: jprev40 | March 31, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Steele has it right. The uninsured could have been helped without trying to turn the whole system upside down. Moreover, Obama spent a year on this when he should have been focusing on the economy. The fact that he barely passed a bad bill after a year, given a huge majority in Congress, is hardly a great victory.

Posted by: timwarner13 | March 31, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Best part of the article? The title of Steele's 2007 book. "The Bound Man: Barack Obama and Why He Can't Win". He was referring to the impossibility of Obama winning the Presidency of course. Don't you think Steele would be a bit embarrassed to have such an obvious marker of predictive failure underneath his vacuous op-ed?

Posted by: ElrodinTennessee | March 31, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

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