Constructive Dismissal

Elections should be about clear choices, and back in January 2012, with everyone assuming Mitt Romney would be the Republicans’ nominee for president, while enjoying the Trump-Bachmann-Gingrich-Cain-Perry-Santorum clown show that was developing, it was clear that Mitt Romney was not Barack Obama:

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” Romney told a breakfast forum of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.'”

The remark immediately provided campaign fodder to Romney’s Republican rivals a day before the New Hampshire primary, and Democrats began circulating video clips of it. Romney later accused political opponents of taking his remark out of context.

That was taken out of context. Romney had been talking about an ideal totally unregulated free-market healthcare system, where the government kept its nose of the whole thing and didn’t even insist on any standards on anything at all, where folks bought what insurance they could with their own money, and no one else’s, and could “fire” any insurance company they felt wasn’t doing right by them. If that were the case, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – competition among those who want to get filthy rich selling something – would drive down prices, and thus all healthcare costs, and assure the highest quality health care anyone had ever seen before, anywhere. If you want to make big bucks, you’d damned well better have the best product at the lowest price. Yes, he had a dream – but all people heard was a rich guy, who made his money borrowing money to disassemble healthy companies and sell the parts for a hefty profit for him and his investors, saying he liked to be in that enviable position of being able to fire people, any old time, just because he felt like it.

Perhaps the idea was that he thought that everyone in America should be able to feel like that – in charge and happy and giddy at being able to just fire anyone who displeased them at all, on the spot – but at the time unemployment was a record levels and tens of millions of Americans couldn’t find a job anywhere, doing anything. Romney’s timing was off. This was not the time for the man who had fired so many people – inadvertently, as regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage from all the leveraged buyouts and reorganizations of this company or that – to be talking about the joy of firing people. There are other ways to discuss laissez-faire economic theory – gleefully firing folks who offend you is only one minor implied goodie such an economic system might offer certain personality types, now and then.

That’s not to say Mitt Romney was a psychopath. He was just a man blissfully unaware of the lives of others around him, without the pathologies that sometimes develop from that condition, while Obama was a mensch. After Hillary Clinton sputtered and imploded, Obama was out there saying the oddest things about Republicans. Obama didn’t doubt their good and noble intentions. He knew they just wanted what was best for the country, just as he did – he just disagreed with them on the best way to get there from here. But he was willing to discuss all of that with them, any old time they’d like. The issue was public policy, not intention.

Many on the left were appalled that Obama was giving “those guys” the benefit of the doubt – especially after all the birther and secret-Muslim and pals-with-terrorist nonsense – but Obama kept saying everyone has to understand where these guys are coming from, and that they’re not bad people, really. Obama ignored the personal attacks and kept working on what he thought was best for the country, willing to make any reasonable compromise to get something useful done. These Republicans were men of good will, after all.

They weren’t. They’d compromise on nothing, or not be allowed by their angry base to compromise on anything, so it was one crisis after another – threats to shut down the government or force the United States into default, collapsing the world’s economy, unless Obamacare, which had been passed fair and square and then found quite constitutional by a very conservative Supreme Court, was defunded if not repealed entirely. After a few not-that-reasonable compromises, like that sequester nonsense, Obama gave up. He finally refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling. Republicans may have wanted major policy change without anywhere near the votes to get anything they favored passed, but that had nothing to do with the Full Faith and Credit of the United States Government. Some said that the threats to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, that came up again and again, were blackmail, but the Obama administration got them right – they were bullshit. Republicans were not going to take the blame for ruining the world’s economy for a generation or two, to get rid of a law they didn’t have the votes to block in the first place, and still don’t have the votes to defund or repeal. They backed down, and Obama let them shut down the government over the matter – and they ended up looking like fools. The economy took a big hit and they got nothing they wanted, unless they wanted some kind of noble lost-cause martyrdom that might be useful with the base in upcoming campaigns – the Ted Cruz model.

Through it all, however, Obama never seemed the kind of guy who would ever fire anyone, on the spot, who somehow displeased him. He did fire General McChrystal – but he kind of had to. Any general who lets a reporter listen in as he goes on and on to his staff about how the civilians in Washington who set policy are all jerks and fools, has to go, unless America would prefer a military junta to a constitutional democracy. But that was about it. Heads don’t roll in the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not Mitt Romney. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt, for as long as possible. They’re doing their best, after all. It’s not like they’re Republicans being pussy-whipped by the Tea Party, just down the street. The White House is different.

If so, it’s hard to know what to make of this:

Kathleen Sebelius, the long-embattled secretary of Health and Human Services who was at the center of the disastrous rollout and implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, is stepping down this week after five stormy years in the administration.

The New York Times reported Thursday evening that President Obama has accepted the former Kansas governor’s resignation and will nominate his budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to replace her.

Did Barack Obama turn into Mitt Romney? Was she fired? It’s hard to tell:

Sebelius, 65, made the decision to leave on her own, according to officials, and was not forced out. Nevertheless, Obama had been under pressure for months to fire her. He had resisted, in part because he did not want HHS to undergo more upheaval amid all the problems plaguing, and in part because of his general reluctance to publicly rebuke top officials, according to media reports.

Still, there was little doubt that tensions had grown between the president and his secretary, and the news media made a lot about body language and Obama’s propensity to keep Sebelius in the background at cabinet meetings and other events promoting Obamacare.

That might be what is known in employment law as constructive dismissal – a deliberate and systematic but tacit way of making someone feel so useless and disliked that they quit on their own – the basis of more than a few wrongful discharge lawsuits. It’s just that that sort thing doesn’t seem Obama’s style, but something was going on:

Obama had little good to say about her during an interview with NBC News last November in which he, too, had to apologize about the Obamacare website, which had been crudely designed and which had thwarted the efforts of many Americans to enroll for health insurance for months after the formal launch last October.

Asked by Chuck Todd if he still had “full confidence” in Sebelius in the aftermath of the hobbled launch of, Obama said, “I think she’d be the first to admit that, if we had to do it all over again, there would have been a whole lot more questions than were asked in terms of how this thing is working.”

Still, he added, she “doesn’t write code; yeah, she wasn’t our IT person.” As recently as last week, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, rejected any suggestion that Sebelius would be fired.

That might remind people of another time long ago:

In the hotly contested 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama relied early and often on his charisma to win over voters still on the fence about the freshman Senator. Cracking jokes and smiles at the numerous debates, he was able to distinguish himself from the frequent stern looks and sober policy explanations of his rival, Hillary Clinton. But Obama’s charm fell short in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary. When the moderator asked Clinton whether she had the personal appeal to best her opponent, Obama interjected with, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” The backhanded compliment may have drawn nervous laughter in the auditorium, but it prompted a major backlash in the days to come. Clinton supporters painted Obama as cruel and insensitive, and voters handed him a stunning defeat in New Hampshire just a few days later.

Oops, Obama did it again, for no good reason:

Ironically, Sebelius’ departure comes amid the first really positive news about the health insurance program since its inception.

Sebelius testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning that more than 7.5 million people have signed up for Obamacare. The latest enrollment tally includes the 7.1 million Americans who signed up through the exchanges before midnight on March 31 – the official end of the open enrollment period. It also includes an additional 400,000 people who have taken advantage of the special enrollment period for health insurance shoppers who had trouble signing up through the online exchanges. That special enrollment period is scheduled to end April 15.

The president is hoping that Burwell, 48, a Harvard and Oxford educated West Virginia native with a background in economic policy, will bring an intense focus and management acumen to the department, according to The Times. The budget office, which she has overseen since April of last year, is deeply involved in developing and carrying out health care policy.

“The president wants to make sure we have a proven manager and relentless implementer in the job over there, which is why he is going to nominate Sylvia,” said Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff.

Sebelius did fine, in the end. Now go away and let a real professional do the job, except Ezra Klein sees it differently:

Obamacare has won. And that’s why Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius can resign.

Calls for Sebelius’ resignation were almost constant after Obamacare’s catastrophic launch. The problem wasn’t just that Sebelius had presided over the construction of a fantastically expensive web site that flatly didn’t work. It was that she didn’t know was going to instantly, systemically fail. And so the White House didn’t know that was going to instantly, systemically fail. The demands that Sebelius to step down – or be fired – were as deafening inside the building as outside of it.

But President Obama refused. As National Journal’s Major Garrett reported, Obama believes that “scaring people with a ceremonial firing deepens fear, turns allies against one another, makes them risk-averse, and saps productivity.” Moreover, there was too much to be done to fire one of the few people who knew how to finish the job. Sebelius would stay. The White House wouldn’t panic in ways that made it harder to save the law.

It’s all in how you frame things:

The White House says Sebelius notified the President in March that “she felt confident in the trajectory for enrollment and implementation,” and that once open enrollment ended, “it would be the right time to transition the Department to new leadership.”

In other words, the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team – led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager – can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

That’s the word now. The woman is not Stanley McChrystal, but Greg Sargent points out that nothing is ever that easy:

Republicans are already salivating at the prospect of confirmation hearings for her successor, and their response to the resignation says a lot about the current state of the debate over Obamacare. In short, as enrollment continues to mount, Republicans are retreating to a fallback position, which is that Obamacare cannot work by definition.

Here’s Eric Cantor: “I thank Secretary Sebelius for her service. She had an impossible task: nobody can make Obamacare work.”

Here’s Chuck Grassley: “Anybody put in charge of Obamacare would be set up to fail.”

Here’s Mitch McConnell: “Sebelius may be gone, but the problems with this law and the impact it’s having on our constituents aren’t. Obamacare has to go too.” As always, with McConnell, the law’s beneficiaries simply don’t exist.

Sebelius was fine, likable enough, but she wasn’t the problem:

Last fall, as the law got underway and as the website then crashed, the Republican position was essentially that the law was fatally flawed (nobody wanted it, supposedly) and thus would inevitably fail to fulfill its own goals. Now that the law has hit enrollment targets, and evidence comes in that it is for now on track, the Republican position is that the law is a failure even if it is more or less doing what it was designed to do — cover a lot more people. Indeed, one way to describe the GOP position is that Republicans think the law is an inherent failure precisely because it is doing what it was designed to do.

There’s no pleasing these people:

The Republican position – that the law can’t work by definition – is essentially an admission that Republicans simply don’t support doing what Obamacare sets out to do: Expand coverage to the number of people the law hopes to cover, through a combination of increased government oversight over the health system and – yep – spending money. The GOP focus on only those being negatively impacted by the law, and the aggressive hyping of cancellations into “millions” of full blown “horror stories” – combined with the steadfast refusal to acknowledge the very existence of the law’s beneficiaries – is, at bottom, just another way to fudge the actual GOP position: Flat out opposition to doing what it takes to expand health care to lots and lots of people.

And that’s a trap:

Sometimes Republicans are candid about this position, such as when Paul Ryan forthrightly admitted that once Obamacare is repealed, its popular provisions should not be restored because it would be too expensive. Others, however, recognize the political problem here, and continue to say they support Obamacare’s general goals while declining to detail how a replacement would accomplish them. The problem for Republicans is that they want to persuade folks that they, too, support these general goals – hence the perpetual promise of vague alternatives – but this posture is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that Obamacare cannot work by definition, because there’s no alternative way to accomplish those goals at the law’s scale.

There’s a bit of delusion here:

Politico reports this morning that Republicans are convinced that the Sebelius resignation opens the door for confirmation hearings that will shower them with political riches. I believe that, despite persistent disapproval of the law, the bulk of the polling suggests the American mainstream generally agrees Obamacare is the only set of solutions we have (with single payer being a political impossibility), wants to give it a chance to work, and doesn’t believe there is any Republican alternative. Majorities (except for Republicans) want to move on from the Obamacare debate. More hearings aren’t going to change that.

Why do they even want to fight his battle? Kevin Drum is puzzled:

Obamacare is a great example of the famous hack gap.

Don’t get me wrong. We lefties generally try to portray Obamacare as a success. You won’t find Diogenes on either side. But I read lots of lefties who write about health care, and they’ve generally been willing to acknowledge Obamacare’s problems. The federal website rollout was a disaster. The insurance pools so far seem to have fewer of the young and healthy than we’d hoped. Narrow networks are a significant problem, especially in some states. We don’t know yet how many Obamacare enrollees were previously uninsured – and in any case, the number appears to be less than CBO projected earlier this year…

But unless I’m reading the wrong conservatives, you simply see nothing of this sort on the right. Their coverage of Obamacare is simply an endless search for increasingly strained ways to deny that anything even slightly positive has happened. The Obama administration is lying about its numbers. If they’re not lying, the figures are meaningless anyway until they’ve been un-skewed. Premiums are skyrocketing. People are being tossed off their plans and thrown in the street. The budget projections are a joke. Cancer patients are dying for lack of doctors to see them. Hours are being cut back and part-time workers are being fired. Fewer people have coverage now than before Obamacare started up.

I could go on. And on. And on. This is the hack gap in all its glory. There’s simply no willingness on the right to acknowledge any success at all. And even when they’re forced to concede that maybe there are a few people benefiting from Obamacare, it’s just an opportunity to rail about Democrats handing out bennies to inner-city moochers like a modern-day Boss Tweed. Welcome to America, ladies and gentlemen.

Yes, and it took Obama five years to figure this out. Still, it’s best to understand the other side, to see the lives of others, and Paul Waldman gives it a go with one subset of those who despise this president and everything thing that’s been happening:

Liberals should acknowledge that for more fundamentalist Christians, there’s a genuine feeling that underlies their fears. In many ways, the contemporary world really has turned against them. Society has decided that their beliefs about family – in which sex before marriage is shameful and wicked, and women are subordinate to their husbands – are antiquated and worthy of ridicule. Their contempt for gay people went from universal to acceptable to controversial to deplorable in a relatively short amount of time. If you are actually convinced that, in the words of possible future senator and current congressman Paul Broun, “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old,” then modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs. And so are biology and physics and many other branches of science.

Kevin Drum goes further:

It’s not just changing culture. Over the last half century, various branches of government have also taken plenty of proactive steps to marginalize religion. Prayer in public school has been banned. Crèches can no longer be set up in front of city hall. Parochial schools are forbidden from receiving public funds. The Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in courtrooms. Catholic hospitals are required to cover contraceptives for their employees. Gay marriage is legal in more than a dozen states and the number is growing rapidly.

Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they’re real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.

As far as I’m concerned, the culture wars are one of the left’s greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it’s entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn’t just sell the right short; it sells the left short too. It’s our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.

And Kathleen Sebelius should be proud too, even if she screwed up badly at critical times, and let’s go back to 2008 again:

Barack Obama was forced onto the defensive at the weekend over unguarded comments he made about small-town voters across the Midwest.

Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

That comment caused Obama no end of trouble at the time, but looking back, after seeing Obama in action for five years now, those don’t seem the words of an elitist snob. Those are words of sympathy – he “gets” these people and understands their frustration, which he implies is more than justified. He understands the lives of others, and now we know he really doesn’t like firing people. That was Mitt Romney, the functioning borderline psychopath, from the party of the same, the party that wants to take away the health insurance that seven or eight million people just got for the first time, and the health insurance that three times that many will have in hand by the time of the next presidential election. Luckily, elections are another form of constructive dismissal.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Constructive Dismissal

  1. Rick says:

    Two observations, both concerning our shared history.

    First, there’s candidate Obama, back in 2008:

    “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    You say about this, that “That comment caused Obama no end of trouble at the time”, but the way I remember it is that, although Republicans tried to stir things up, there was surprisingly little negative reaction back in Pennsylvania, which was the state he was referring to, with many there saying he seemed to understand them when he mentioned that “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them… And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not” — Obama stood by his statement — and, in fact, he ended up carrying the state by a 10.3% margin.

    And then, Kevin Drum:

    “Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response.”

    I googled Drum: He was born in 1958, in southern California. I, too, was born in southern California, but was 14 and had moved to Connecticut by the day he was born — which means we don’t quite share a common history.

    When I was a kid, I remember it was generally accepted that there should be no prayer in public schools, and also no government funding of parochial schools. It was only later that the right, saying this all was wrong, went on the attack, not only putting the status quo on the defensive but eventually making it look like those on the left, who believe in the separation of church and state, were the ones who went on the attack, trying to take prayer out of schools and whatnot. So it was they, not we, who are the ones rewriting history, and Kevin Drum — even though he’s on our side and one of the good guys — is inadvertently helping to make their case.

    It may be because he was ten years old in 1968, too young to quite grasp the true significance of the “leftist” culture-war of that year, and now lives in Irvine, in infamous Orange County, California, totally surrounded by pretty much nothing but conservatives, that may be why he doesn’t realize that today’s culture wars are “entirely a manufactured outrage of the right”.

    But history is not a solid, like wood or stone; mostly it’s made up of things remembered, or maybe only imagined, and in fact, any one of us could be imagining things wrong.


  2. Russell Sadler says:

    These endless, meretricious conservative arguments remind me of a book that remains quite an influence on me despite being published in 1991.

    Some years ago Albert O. Hirschman spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton to write a book. (Yes, this is the same Institute for Advanced Study where Albert Einstein did his famous work.) Hirschman’s little book is entitled “The Rhetoric of Reaction.”

    Going back nearly 400 years, Hirschman puts the political rhetoric of conservatives into three catagories:

    The Rhetoric of Perversity: No matter what you try to do, the results will not be the results you want. The Natural Order imposes perverse results and the outcome of human efforts will be the opposite of what you hope for.

    The Rhetoric of Futility: No matter what you try to do, the results will not be what you want to achieve. The Natural Order cannot be changed by human intervention so human intervention is futile. Resistance is Futile! Remember the Borg movie?

    The Rhetoric of Jeopardy: What you want to do will result in unacceptable costs or consequences you cannot predict. This is the argument that real democracy is really a threat to Liberty. The French Revolution is usually used as an example.

    All three of these arguments have one thread in common. The Natural Order is so immutable that human efforts to change it are impossible, so sit on the sideline and accept your lot in life because there’s nothing you can do about. Above all, don’t vote, don’t participate. You are doomed.

    It’s the opiate of the masses.

    And if you believe it and decide not to participate in politics, they win. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is neither invisible nor divinely guided.

    Google Hirschman. He passed away last year, but the book is still around on Abe, Alibris or Amazon. Quite cheap. One of the best books I ever read. It’s influenced my thinking since it was published in 1991.

    • Rick says:


      In fact, most people don’t think about it this way, but the history of the modern conservative/liberal divide in the west can probably best be traced back even beyond 400 years, to beginning of the Renaissance, when centuries of rule by rich guys and the church who were convinced that God, for his own reasons, had put them in charge — and who were they to question God’s will? (an early version of today’s “born on third base and thinking they’d hit a triple”) — gave way to thinking people who came to realize that human beings don’t have to accept things the way they are (which was pretty miserable), but actually have the power to make things better.

      The old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd, of course, represented conservative thinking, and the new, “Yes, we can” group, stood for liberal thought.

      When you think about it, you realize that the philosophy of anti-social-engineering and making sure the serfs remain serfs, and burning scientists at the stake as witches, is still at the base of all modern conservative thought, from anti-Universal Healthcare to anti-birth-control to voter suppression, just as the liberals of today are still fighting the battles of the Renaissance thinkers of old, the ones who led us kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages and gave us science and art and medicine and democracy, and a world of hope for all, not just the few.

      Thanks for the heads up. I need to find that book!


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