Obama should seek forgiveness for health care position
“We are not asking rabbis to give a political lecture — we don’t expect everybody will want to hear sermons on health care.”
— A White House official explaining President Obama’s recent conference call to 1,000 rabbis
The one thing President Obama can be proud of from his health care Hail Mary conference call last week was wishing his listeners “Shana Tova.” And the White House is right that many Jews will not want to hear a sermon on health care reform come Rosh Hashana. But the rest of the phone call, a poor attempt at convincing “faith” leaders that they should proselytize for the president’s sinking health care reform initiative, was an embarrassment.
Of course, the president is trying mightily to shore up support for Obamacare anywhere he can, after spending most of the past month getting hammered from the left and the right. So it is no surprise that he’d reach out to a reliable voting bloc — Jewish liberal leaders — and encourage them to spread his message. But this is one strategy that should have been left in the playbook.
Employing moral/religious reasoning in support of a public policy issue is inappropriate.
“I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform,” Obama said on the call last Wednesday, according to Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va. “We are God’s partners in matters of life and death,” Obama said. Really. Was the president claiming that God endorses the public option? Or did he mean that, with his plan, God would be working though the government bureaucrats who will be counseling their clients on end-of-life decisions? Perhaps Mr. Obama would like to share how he learned of the Almighty’s endorsement.
Only one person has publicly expressed his disapproval. “I find the blurring of church and state to be disconcerting not only on political grounds (and legal/tax purposes), but also for competency. Rabbis have enough difficulty understanding the nuances and intricacies of their own religion to be promoting specific policies in areas for which they have no expertise,” wrote Rabbi Josh Yuter, who listened to President Obama’s call.
Few others have any reservations, however, and the reason is simple. There hasn’t been more of an outcry about the state trying to encroach on the religious lives of its citizens because almost everyone on the call agrees with the president about his plans. What if he’d gotten on the call to say “I’ve had a change of heart and now I endorse cost-saving measures like tort reform to lower malpractice insurance as well as passing legislation to allow insurance companies to sell health policies across state lines.” Would that have troubled anyone? Might we have heard then that the president had no right to “suggest” the topic of conversation inside a synagogue on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar?
Blaming others for his mistakes is weak.
President Obama reportedly claimed that those who criticize his vision are “bearing false witness.” But since when is it false to disagree. The president isn’t losing his battle for a health care overhaul because of lies or misinformation (as he is wont to say). He is losing because he is contradicting himself about how he’ll pay for it. He is misrepresenting how much it is going to impact the federal deficit to spend another trillion (or more) dollars to insure every American (and the undocumented as well). He is losing because a lot of Americans are honestly worried about yet another power-grab by Washington, after the stimulus package, the takeover of the auto-industry, regulatory control of the financial sector, etc.
According to Beth Shalom Rabbi Michael Werbow, who participated in the call, the president was trying to get his message out and seized the High Holidays “as a time when rabbis have more face time” with their congregants. Werbow also said that he thought Obama was “trying to avoid as much miscommunication as possible.” Now, if the president, who is known far and wide as a remarkable orator, can’t explain his ideas on health reform clearly and concisely, who exactly is responsible for any supposed miscommunications? Doesn’t he have the bully pulpit 365 days a year, unlike rabbis who have only a couple of hours to make their best case? Plus, why is it OK for the president to enlist Jewish spiritual leaders in his political fights?
Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman, said in a statement: “There will certainly be rabbis and congregants on all sides of the debate, but one thing common to all Jews is Tikkun Olam — the commitment to making the world around us a better place — and today no issue is more central to that work than making our health care system work better for all Americans.”
The administration using the cover of a Jewish concept for its own policy initiatives is unseemly. Making the world a better place, as Mr. Cherlin put it, is an important Jewish concept, but it has nothing to do with the various pieces of legislation making their way through Congress. The White House deciding that their issue — health care reform —exemplifies some Jewish teaching and pressuring rabbis to make it central to their sermons should have been opposed by those who listened to the call and come High Holiday time, should be opposed by their congregants.
As for President Obama, instead of focusing on Rosh Hashana sermons, he should look ahead a little further to Yom Kippur and consider the importance of asking forgiveness for his transgressions.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)