Contextual Content

Obama’s inclusiveness mission

Paul Jay speaks to Bishop Gene Robinson at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum Conference in San
Francisco. They speak about President Obama’s attempt at being more inclusive. For his inauguration,
Obama invited Rick Warren, a right-wing Evangelical Minister who was quoted on BeliefNet comparing
homosexuality to sexual deviation such as incest to speak, and now the issue of inclusivity comes up
once again in regard to the health care debate. Robinson says that even though Obama called for a
"new kind of bipartisanship, we’ve seen how far that’s gotten. You’ve got virtually all the Republicans
voting against the nominee for the Supreme Court. At some point, if the other side isn’t willing to play,
then you have to get done what you have to get done on your own."

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from San Francisco, from the Momentum Conference of the Tides Foundation. Joining us now is Bishop Gene Robinson. He’s the ninth bishop of the Episcopal church in New Hampshire. Just in case you didn’t watch the inauguration of President Obama, which is hard to imagine, he gave the invocation at the inauguration. Thanks for joining us, Gene.

GENE ROBINSON, EPISCOPAL CHURCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE: Absolutely.

JAY: So if we go back to that moment of the inauguration, it was quite controversial, because President Obama invited Reverend Rick Warren—also who gave part of the invocation—and, of course, Warren’s very well known as being someone who’s a fairly militant fighter against gay rights and against gay marriage and such. And it was defended at the time by the Obama administration as a sign of inclusivity. Where do you think that inclusivity has led? Because the current climate, and particularly when you focus on the health-care debate, is anything but inclusive. The rhetoric couldn’t be more polarized.

ROBINSON: Inclusion is—it’s a little like trying to hold mercury in your hands: it sort of scoots around and gets redefined. And I think it’s important—at least I’m still in the place to cut the new president some slack. I objected to his invitation to Rick Warren to give the invocation, largely because not only does he espouse anti-gay views, but he was quite involved in the Prop 8 fight here in California.

JAY: And just for people that don’t know, Prop 8, just tell us quickly what it was.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Prop 8 was the referendum on the law that had just been passed legalizing gay marriage for gay and lesbian couples here in California, and of course that passed, rendering gay marriage not legal except for those who had already been married.

JAY: In San Francisco.

ROBINSON: Makes—makes no—. Well, even the 1,400 couples that have been married all over the state of California, they were left married. But no more could get married, which makes, actually, less sense than wiping them all out. And although I’ve been a real supporter of the Obama campaign and advised them on gay and lesbian issues throughout the campaign, I was very critical of this choice.

JAY: But, I mean, love your enemy, as Jesus taught, does not mean there isn’t an enemy.

ROBINSON: That’s right. But also I think it’s important to remember that the president is the president of all the people. I never spoke with the president about this, but I know that he had a relationship with Rick Warren. And, to be honest, Rick Warren is not the worst of the far-right evangelicals. I mean, he’s doing some good stuff around AIDS. I wish he’d pay a little more attention to AIDS in America, but he’s doing some good stuff around AIDS in Africa, around global poverty, and so on. So he is not the worst. And I must say, when I prayed my prayer at the Lincoln Memorial at the first inaugural event, I addressed my prayer to the God of our many understandings, because, frankly, there are as many understandings of God as there are human beings who believe in God. And I was sort of braced for the worse with Rick Warren. And there were a couple of times that I thought he did a couple of nice things. I mean, he said Jesus was someone that he believed in, not implying that the whole of the United States did. But I used my phrase because it seems to me that mostly in public prayers in this country we exclude non-Christians, people without faith, and so on. I still think it was a bad choice.

JAY: So let’s talk about that. So the presidency begins with the invitation of Rick Warren with this kind of idea of let’s include everyone in the dialog. Then we move on. Let’s jump right to the health-care debate. So then you have the same kind of principle applied: well, let’s have pharmaceutical companies involved; let’s bring the insurance companies to the table. This idea that everybody could be part of the solution—although you have to have the caveat there was no single-payer supporters invited to the table, certainly not to Senator Baucus’s table, anyway.

ROBINSON: Right.

JAY: So it wasn’t fully inclusive. But isn’t there a point where you have to say there really is conflict of interest, there really are, on certain issues, opposing sides, and you have to wage a fight? And people are saying of President Obama, if you really have conviction and believe in these things—and in this case it’s real public health-care insurance—then you get out there and you fight for it. And is this idea of inclusiveness actually getting to a point where it becomes ineffectiveness?

ROBINSON: Well, I think if the inclusiveness doesn’t work—. I mean, we’re seeing that on a number of levels, aren’t we? President Obama was fond of saying that there’ll be no red states and blue states, just the United States, and he called for this new kind of bipartisanship. Well, we’ve seen how far that’s gotten. You’ve got virtually all of the Republicans voting against the nominee for the Supreme Court. I mean, at some point, if the other side isn’t willing to play, then you have to get done what you can get done on your own. And I fear that that’s where we’re coming very soon with the Congress, because it seems to me that the strategy of the Republicans at the moment is to try to block anything from working that the president proposes. On the health-care issue, the thing that I find the most disturbing about it is that in the campaign what we thought about was how many people are uninsured. You don’t hear about that anymore. And we’ve got people who are already insured showing up at these town meetings objecting to the health-care reform—none of them are saying, oh, yeah, and I lost my job a year ago and lost my health insurance, and, no, I’m against health-care reform. We’re not hearing from the 50 million people who go to bed every night wondering if they’re one illness away from bankruptcy.

JAY: When you say we have to reach a point, go back. Was there a mistake in the beginning with the kind of whole outlook of this inclusivity? Like, I remember the time around the inauguration particularly. There was all kinds of comparison between Obama with Abraham Lincoln. The media was all full of it. Abraham Lincoln was not a unifier saying there’s no red states, no blue states; Abraham Lincoln fought a Civil War. He unified his forces to fight a war against those forces that he thought were opposing progress at the time.

ROBINSON: He didn’t start the war, however.

JAY: But he was willing to fight it.

ROBINSON: But he was willing to try to preserve the union. You know, I think it’s too early to tell. We’ve got a presidential address coming up on Wednesday night, and there are people who are saying this will be when the new president takes the gloves off. I don’t know that that will happen, but I do know that if we’re going to get any kind of real reform, any meaningful, substantive reform, he is going to have to fight for it because the forces against it are so terrible. You know, the day that he wavered somewhat on the public option, the insurance companies’ stock went through the roof. They were, like, dancing in the streets. That should be a very clear indication that without the public option this is just going to be money in their pockets of insurance companies.

JAY: Well, we’re hearing the deal that’s being worked out is going to be the trigger option, which is no public option unless the insurance companies don’t hit certain benchmarks, in which case it would trigger [inaudible] nothing at all.

ROBINSON: Yeah. And here, you know, you often hear that—what is it?—perfection is the enemy of possibility. And it’s got to be a very difficult decision to make in any field. But governing a country like this one, do you go for broke and risk getting nothing, or do you settle for something less? The trigger option would be better than no trigger option, and such mild reform that most of us wouldn’t notice the difference. I think, you know, after eight or nine months, eight months in office, this new president is still probably finding his grounding, finding where he wants to push and where he doesn’t. And, you know, it’s a tough go, and he can’t do it alone. And, you know, my question is: where are—I would say Christian voices—where are the religious voices demanding, making some demands on this administration for health coverage for all, especially those 50 million people who are without any kind of coverage right now.

JAY: ‘Cause if that gets solved through some kind of subsidization, for everyone to buy private insurance with no public option, is that any kind of a win, any kind of a solution?

ROBINSON: Not much of a win, I don’t think. And we haven’t heard anything about single-payer, which is the way I think we should go. I love at these hearings they, you know, "Get government out of my Medicare." Well, hello, Medicare is a government-run health care. I’d just as soon see an expansion of that to cover all Americans. I don’t think that’s a realistic option. And the slogans being used, you know, these bumper-sticker slogans, everything from the death panels to communism and all that kind of stuff, are so effective, you can sell those in a real—. Everybody knows the phrase "death panel". Trying to explain why it’s not a death panel takes lots of paragraphs.

JAY: Well, that’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? How is it that even has to be answered? How is it a couple of right-wing talk show hosts can start setting the national agenda on how things get framed?

ROBINSON: Because there are an awful lot of people out there who listen to talk radio; that’s why. You know, there are—what?—48 percent of this country did not vote for Barack Obama, and I think we can treat them as a tiny minority at our peril. But the fact of the matter is: them plus a few more is a majority.

JAY: So how does one speak to them? How does one deal with this kind of effect of this hard-right drumbeat?

ROBINSON: This is where I think President Obama is at his best, which is slow and steady. I’ve hardly ever met a man who is as comfortable in his own skin. He does not seem panicked at some of the things that come his way as most of us would, I think. And I think, in the end, reasonableness, rationality will win out. But it takes somebody pretty darned steady at the helm to keep this moving forward, and we’ll only know with time whether he is the man to do that.

JAY: Wednesday night must be a test. We’ll see what he says.

ROBINSON: I think it will be.

JAY: If he gives up on the public option Wednesday night, does it change your mind about [inaudible]?

ROBINSON: Well, I will oppose that publicly, privately, and so on. On the other hand, there are desperate people in this country, where they literally face bankruptcy if almost the smallest thing happens to them, and we have to do something about that. My great hope is that if we didn’t have the public option, that we certainly would have this triggering effect, so that if in fact our worst fears are realized, then something will be done about it without having to start all over from scratch again, because the possibility of doing that as we come up to the next election: nil.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

ROBINSON: You’re very welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.