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Harvard scholar to discuss Obama, health care reform

January 07, 2010

The country's desire for change, especially in health care, and its frustration with the pace of change in President Barack Obama's administration, will be the focus of the Second Annual Edward J. Shoen Leading Scholars Lecture. The event will be held at noon on Thursday, Jan. 21, in the Great Hall of Armstrong Hall at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

The talk, "Obama and the Struggle to Transform U.S. Public Policy: The Case of Health Care Reform Redux," will be given by Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. It is presented by the Arizona State Law Journal.

"I'm going to try to help us understand the extraordinary hopes and fears for change, and why it has proved much more difficult than people expected," Skocpol said.

The event is free, but tickets are required and can be obtained at The lecture is named in honor of Edward J. "Joe" Shoen, a 1981 graduate of the College of Law and Chairman and CEO of AMERCO, the parent company of the U-Haul® system. It brings to campus some of the leading minds in the legal academy to present major new works and set those scholars in dialogue with others.

"Theda Skocpol is among the most dynamic and insightful commentators on the dynamics of political change in America," said Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. "We are privileged to have her on campus for this timely and important talk that should be a draw not only for lawyers and judges, but for all those interested in U.S. government, politics, social movements, and health policy."

Skocpol said Obama's election looked like one that meant great change.

He won by a substantial margin after an election that aroused high levels of participation and grassroots interest. Democrats increased Congressional margins at the same time. And the previous president had been unpopular.

"Political scientists have found that presidents who come to power after 'repudiated' predecessors have more room to make significant policy changes - and most Americans were disillusioned with George W. Bush and the Republicans," Skocpol said. "Furthermore, Obama's arrival coincided with a major economic crisis - which can open the way for new governmental initiatives."

Comparisons were made to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, coming into office during the Great Depression, a man who was seen as a savior by the populace, and who was able to enact sweeping legislative changes.

"Time magazine ran an illustration on the cover showing Obama sitting in an open car with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth, a direct analogy to FDR's New Deal," Skocpol said. "But it's so much harder to change the direction of the American government now than it was then. So many policies are already in place, and everybody has a stake in them.

"Congressional rules, especially in the Senate, allow many veto points. The media and interest group systems magnify opposing voices. Election cycles favor the non-presidential party the next time around, especially in midterms, when older voters turn out more readily."

Skocpol said the economic crisis also is very different.

"When Roosevelt came into office, the economic crisis was at its depth. Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could vote first on Roosevelt's proposals. They voted before the text arrived."

Obama faced a much different landscape.

"Obama took office just as the crisis was starting. And the crisis continues to get worse and worse for regular Americans, which interferes with his ability to get things passed."

The nature of the redirections Obama and the Democrats seek, also stir resistance, Skocpol said.

"In one major policy area after another, from health care and higher education funding to taxes, Obama is trying to pull back from subsidizing privileged profit-seekers and reallocate resources to enhance opportunity and security for less-privileged Americans," she said. "But this is bound to be an uphill battle, because privileged groups have many levers to protect their own favored deals and denounce redirections of public resources."

This drama is playing out very visibly in the battle over health care reform, Skocpol said.

"By the time I get to Arizona, we may have a new law, the first time in 100 years that's happened," Skocpol said. "The question is, what's in the law? We must see how far the reforms go toward redirecting resources toward the majority and removing wasteful subsidies for a variety of privileged interests."

Skocpol said the stakes are high.

"In the midst of a crushing economic downturn, the continuing right-wing drumbeat against any government initiative for the majority can be revalidated if either nothing happens, or something happens that feels like extra cost or worrisome losses for ordinary people while privileged groups continue to reap pay-offs. This is what most Americans believe has happened with the 'Wall Street bailout' and it won't take much to convince them that it is happening again with health reform."

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law