Monday, January 18, 2010

Obama's first year: doing too much?

One of the Republican-friendly press memes that our Pod Pundits are reciting as part of their first-year evaluation of the Obama administration is that Obama tried to do too much in the first year. Which essentially comes down to the notion that Obama shouldn't have pushed for health care reform. The conventional wisdom among our punditocracy even during the 2008 campaign was that the whole health care thing was dull and boring and they didn't want to have to talk about. They don't consider it important.

Paul Krugman addresses the meme of Obama having tried to do too much in his columnWhat Didn’t Happen New York Times 01/17/09. I don't agree with Krugman's sanguine assessment of the quality of the Obama-Lieberman version of health care reform that the Senate passed. But he makes a good point about the politics:

The Obama administration’s troubles are the result not of excessive ambition, but of policy and political misjudgments. The stimulus was too small; policy toward the banks wasn’t tough enough; and Mr. Obama didn’t do what Ronald Reagan, who also faced a poor economy early in his administration, did — namely, shelter himself from criticism with a narrative that placed the blame on previous administrations. ...

So where do complaints of an excessively broad agenda fit into all this? Could the administration have made a midcourse correction on economic policy if it hadn’t been fighting battles on health care? Probably not. One key argument of those pushing for a bigger stimulus plan was that there would be no second chance: if unemployment remained high, they warned, people would conclude that stimulus doesn’t work rather than that we needed a bigger dose. And so it has proved.

It's important to remember, also, how important health care reform is to the Democratic base. Some activists have been left disillusioned by the compromises made to get legislation through the Senate — but they would have been even more disillusioned if Democrats had simply punted on the issue.

And politics should be about more than winning elections. Even if health care reform loses Democrats' votes (which is questionable), it's the right thing to do.

Our vapid press corps, obsessing over horse-race issues and getting thrills up their legs as they drool over gossipy trash from the Game Change book can't focus on fairly straightforward analysis like that.

Which reminds me of something that would be astonishing, if I had much capacity left to be astonished at our adolescent press corps. Health care reform with a public option is a popular program, as polls both throughout 2009 and before have consistently shown. Yet the pundits all but unanimously assume that it would be damaging for members of Congress to vote for a very popular program. What sense does that make?

I do think that taking out the public option makes health care reform, sad to say, something that is more likely to hurt Democrats in a somewhat longer run than help them. But as bad as the reporting on health care reform has generally been, the Obama administration is likely to get away with touting even the Obama-Lieberman version of health care reform as providing new access to millions of the uninsured and addressing the problems of health care. Since most provisions don't take effect until 2014, it seems to me that will be a useful campaign slogan in 2010.

That assumes it passes. If it doesn't pass, it becomes a double-whammy against the Democrats. Their own supporters will be disappointed, as Krugman says. And they will clearly have failed to get through their signature domestic program with a Democratic President in office and large majorities in both Houses of Congress. They will look like "losers" if that happens, and understandably so.

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