Should the post of America’s top doctor be filled by a smooth-talking television star? It might soon be. Rumours are swirling that Barack Obama wants Sanjay Gupta,CNN’s chief medical correspondent,to serve as America’s next surgeon-general.
At first sight,the idea seems barmy. On grounds of substance,it seems odd to put a talking head in such a job,given that health reform will be a priority for the new administration. And on style,Mr Obama is already criticised by some as being too Clintonesque in his eagerness to curry favour with the media. Some critics denounced the presumed choice this week; Paul Krugman of the New York Times even claimed that Dr Gupta did not deserve the job because he unfairly attacked Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” (which in turn made the ridiculous claim that Cuba’s health system is better than America’s).
But Dr Gupta may yet prove a clever choice,for three reasons. First of all,he is not merely a pretty face. He is a qualified neurosurgeon who practises his craft and holds a post at Atlanta’s Emory University. Second,doctors with roots in the subcontinent are greatly over-represented among the country’s medical establishment but have long felt neglected. Elevating a prominent Indian-American may help Mr Obama court America’s medical lobby,which has traditionally been hostile to reform.
But the biggest reason to think Dr Gupta may succeed is the fact that the only real power the surgeon-general has is the use of his bully pulpit to promote public health goals,such as healthy eating and stopping smoking. Some previous holders of the post were vocally so clumsy that they lost their effectiveness or their jobs: Joycelyn Elders was sacked by Bill Clinton for encouraging the teaching of masturbation. Others have been grey men who failed to get media attention. That,at least,is a problem Dr Gupta is unlikely to have.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008