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Timid Obama Succumbs to Old Politics

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, June 18, 2009

This has been a tough week for the hopeful ones who believed President Obama's vow to break with the old politics. Every day, it seems, the president caved in to another Democratic interest group working against the public weal.

Let's start with the mayors' conference just ended in Providence, R.I. One hundred Obama administration officials canceled their plans to attend, rather than cross a firefighters' picket line set up to embarrass the host, Providence Mayor David Cicilline. The mayor was trying to curb the workers' gold-plated benefits in a city reeling under an 11.3 percent unemployment rate. The no-shows included Vice President Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

The mayors were none too happy. Their cities are in economic crisis. They had a lot to discuss with administration officials. And dealing with their own public-employee dramas, they could imagine themselves in Cicilline's shoes.

As Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, put it: "None of us in this room are insulated from the economic challenges faced by the city of Providence. This will not be the last time this administration will be asked to make a similar choice."

A little more background: Providence has among the best-paid firefighters in the country. The union is willing to raise the minimum years of service for getting a pension from 20 to 25, which means someone could still join the force at 19 and retire at 44. It won't negotiate a minimum retirement age or do anything to reduce the exorbitant cost-of-living increases that for some former firefighters double pension payments every 11 years, however.

One firefighter, a former chief, is collecting a disability pension that pays him $13,000 a month, tax-free. The city supports its firefighters with very high property taxes, but only 55 of the 459 live there.

It was over such "grievances" that the Obama administration virtually boycotted a national mayors' conference. And it appeared to make no difference that Cicilline is a liberal Democrat.

Suppose schoolteachers decide to picket September's G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh. Would Obama and his secretary of state stay home? Or are only America's mayors expendable?

The week had hardly begun, and the president gave in to another interest group that many Democrats think needs reining in. This time, it was the trial lawyers.

On Monday, Obama addressed the American Medical Association. He told the doctors that he wanted "to explore a range of ideas" for reducing one of their biggest headaches, medical malpractice suits. Then he cutely tells them, "Don't get too excited yet": He would not support caps on medical-malpractice awards, the simple and proven way to reduce frivolous suits. California and Texas already limit payouts for pain and suffering, and it has worked.

Rather than displease the trial lawyers, Obama hurt his campaign to reform health care in two ways. One, changing the medical-malpractice law is low-hanging fruit in the monumental task of controlling runaway costs.

Doctors order unnecessary treatments as a defense against litigation and spend untold billions of health-care dollars on malpractice insurance. Two, fixing the law could have won more doctors over to his program.

Bear in mind that a reasonable medical-malpractice law does not stop a wronged patient from suing. It lets the injured party collect the full medical costs of dealing with the error. It only limits the awards for the non-economic damages off which lawyers reap their jackpots.

I don't know who drained the intestines of the Obama administration. Candidate Obama said not long ago, "Change happens because the American people ... rise up and insist on new ideas and a new leadership, a new politics for a new time." Would that he remember this.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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