The next Surgeon General

THE NEXT SURGEON GENERAL…. President Obama introduced Dr. Regina Benjamin yesterday as his choice to be the new Surgeon General. I was inclined to write about her nomination in more detail yesterday, but quickly remembered a nagging detail: I hadn’t the foggiest idea who she is.

I’ve had a chance to read up a bit on her background, though, and by all appearances, Benjamin seems like a fine choice. Slate‘s Christopher Beam said the debate thus far comes down to whether Benjamin is “fantastic or, as some dissenters claim, merely marvelous.”

Benjamin studied at Morehouse and the Alabama School of Medicine; started a family practice in a fishing village called Bayou la Batre, Ala.; got her MBA at Tulane; and converted her practice to a medical clinic for the poor. Those who couldn’t pay, she treated for free. After Hurricanes George and Katrina twice destroyed the clinic, she went into debt to rebuild it. Along the way, she was named one of Time‘s “50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under” and won a MacArthur “genius” grant. It’s like something out of Reader’s Digest. Oh wait — it is. […]

Where Benjamin will really distinguish herself, though — or fall face first — is in the role of advocate. In a press conference introducing Benjamin, Obama took several minutes to plug his plan for health care reform, thus putting her nomination squarely in the context of the health care battle. Benjamin “has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system,” Obama said. Besides treating poor Americans in rural areas for years, she is a poster child for prevention. “My father died with diabetes and hypertension,” she said. “My older brother, and only sibling, died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer, because as a young girl, she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother could.” If Regina Benjamin did not already exist, Barack Obama would have invented her.

And while it’s unclear what kind of role Benjamin has in mind (assuming she’s confirmed by the Senate), Elise Foley noted that the physician’s background has a certain political salience: “…Benjamin has something [Sanjay Gupta] doesn’t: a record of working with the poor and uninsured. Not coincidentally, these are among the people whom Obama’s health care reform plans will help the most…. It’s no coincidence that Obama spent the first half of his press conference reaffirming his commitment to passing health care reform legislation, then moved on to discussing an appointee who worked with the same types of people his plans are meant to protect. At a time when the uninsured are so important a part of the health care debate, it seems fitting that Obama would take the appointment of the surgeon general to remind us why.”

Also, John Cole flagged this NPR report on Benjamin, which as he noted, helps capture “what an amazing person she is.”

Recent history suggests Republican senators reflexively try to block just about every Obama nominee, regardless of merit or qualification, but I’m hoping they make Benjamin’s confirmation process a little less painful than most.