RSS
An alternate history of Obamacare
With a little less partisan zeal and a little more humility, the president could have earned the popular support he needed to pursue the liberal Holy Grail.
David Frum
David Frum
T

he speech is over, but the outlook is the same today as it was yesterday.

And as bad as things look for the country, just imagine how they look from the point of view of congressional Democrats. Only a little more than eight months away from voting day, unemployment remains above 10 percent. The measures that the president instituted to mitigate the recession—his version of TARP, the stimulus bill—are now widely condemned by public opinion. His signature legislation, health care, is stalled, stymied, and unpopular. Election analyst Charlie Cook now estimates that Democrats could lose up to 35 House seats, uncomfortably close to the 38 necessary to flip control back to Republicans.

What went wrong?

Former George W. Bush communications director Karen Hughes tells a resonating story in her memoir. Vacationing on a Texas beach, she looks up and sees a plane drawing an advertising banner: "Jill, come back I am miserable without you. Jack."

She thinks: "Bad messaging, Jack. Too much about you. Not enough about her."

Whether it is Republicans who wish to privatize Social Security or Democrats who wish to universalize health care, it is always dangerously tempting for partisans to substitute what they wish to do for what the electorate demands they do.

The Obama team succumbed to temptation, seizing upon the recession as an opportunity to cram through a big health-care reform—a dream of Democrats since the 1940s.

But that plan was based on a high-risk gamble—that the Obama stimulus plan would deliver results within a reasonable time. If the gamble proved right, if unemployment topped at the 8 percent level predicted by the administration’s economists, then the White House would have the credit and clout to push through its next big plan.

That assumption failed. Through the summer and fall of 2009, the unemployment situation deteriorated—and it continues to deteriorate. In December 2009, 43 states reported increases in their unemployment rates—a sad reverse from November, when a majority of the states had reported improving numbers.

As the unemployment continued to rise, the news from Washington was all health care, all the time.  On the jobs front, the only message was: "Stay the course, hope for the best, the stimulus will kick in soon."

What Americans saw was a crisis being used, not addressed. Plan A had failed, and there was no Plan B.

Now, imagine this alternative.

Suppose Obama had declared jobs his Priority Number One And Only for the duration of the crisis. As it became evident that the stimulus had failed to achieve the desired result, suppose he had followed up with a Plan B: a payroll tax cut. (Sens. Hatch and Schumer yesterday advanced an especially elegant form of this idea.)

The public would have seen a president focused on its priority, not his own. The president would not have had to worry in that case about a filibuster—and if he did, he’d have been better positioned to demand reforms to Senate procedures than he is now, when he’s pushing something the public does not much like.

Suppose the president had deferred action on health care until better economic times, when the country would be more willing to shoulder the weight of a new social welfare plan. Almost every major expansion of the American welfare state has occurred in good times, not bad. Even Social Security was enacted in 1935, a year of almost 10 percent economic growth. Americans spend money when they feel flush, not broke. For many voters, health care means accepting less in order to help others who need more—and Americans are more generous when they feel more secure.

Suppose, in other words, that Obama had acted more like the leader of the nation, less like the leader of a political party—more like the man Americans thought they voted for in 2008.

Reagan, Clinton, Eisenhower all earned their second term by seeking, and finding, this kind of broader identity. So far, Obama does not seem to be looking.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week