Representative Barney Frank, who is not seeking re-election, gave a memorable exit interview this week to New York magazine suggesting that President Barack Obama “underestimated, as did Clinton, the sensitivity of people to what they see as an effort to make them share the health care with poor people.”
The Democratic Party “paid a terrible price for health care,” Frank said. “I would not have pushed it as hard.”
Frank’s take is self-serving. He argued that Obama should have proposed financial reform first, which is convenient considering that he was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee at the time and would have loved all eyes on his bill.
But the question remains: Is Frank right? We know what Republicans unanimously think. What’s surprising is how many Democrats, with the benefit of hindsight and speaking sotto voce, agree with Frank. Although they support the substance of the law, they are appalled by its political fallout and wish they had a do-over. Their thinking was summarized this week in the National Journal by Michael Hirsh, who wrote that by embracing health care reform amid the economic crisis, Obama confused his priorities and took his eye off the ball, much as President George W. Bush did when he invaded Iraq instead of worrying more about al-Qaeda.
This analysis has new resonance because of the recent Supreme Court oral arguments over Obamacare (a term, by the way, that the Obama campaign now embraces). Democrats are wondering if it was worth it to lose the House in 2010 and perhaps the White House in 2012 over a bill that may be declared unconstitutional, anyway.
The answer is yes. To understand why, we need to be clear about the purpose of politics.
It’s not to win elections — hard as that may be to believe in the middle of a campaign. Public approval as expressed in elections is the means to change the country, not the end in itself.
Insuring 30 million Americans and ending the shameful era when an illness in the family meant selling the house or declaring personal bankruptcy? Nothing to sneeze at, whatever the cost to one’s political career.
Frank is mistaken that the White House underestimated the political price. At various points, Vice President Joe Biden, senior advisor David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel advised the president to focus entirely on the economy and leave comprehensive health care for another day. “I begged him not to do this,” Emanuel told me when I was researching my book about Obama’s first year in office.
I asked the president in late 2009 why he overruled his team. He answered: “I remember telling Nancy Pelosi that moving forward on this could end up being so costly for me politically that it would affect my chances” in 2012. But he and Pelosi agreed that if they didn’t move at the outset of the Obama presidency “it was not going to get done.”
Obama was right that his political capital would diminish over time. Even if the Democrats had delayed health care and held the House in 2010, their numbers would almost certainly have been reduced. Can you imagine trying to bring it up now or in a second term?
Hirsh argues that Obama should have stayed focused on the economy not for appearances’ sake but because it was worse off than he and his closest advisers recognized. This wrongly assumes that he could have done substantively more to spur a rebound or keep the benefits of recovery from skewing toward the top 1 percent.
Liberal critics rightly say that Obama should have had a broader circle that included liberal economists. But their remedy — restructuring of the banks — turned out to be unnecessary for reviving the economy and would have cost, by some estimates, several hundred billion dollars on top of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
It’s important to remember that Obama began his presidency with economic recovery, not health care. In his first month in office, he pushed through a mammoth stimulus package that, contrary to the analysis of Drew Westen and others, was as big as Congress would allow. There was no political appetite for a second stimulus before the first had even kicked in — the period when health care was on the table. In other words, the opportunity costs of health-care reform were zero.
As for other priorities, passing the Dodd-Frank financial reform in 2009 would have accomplished nothing except to further slow momentum for health care. In the New York magazine interview, Frank says his bill, which passed in July of 2010, ended up with almost all he wanted anyway.
The other possible legislative achievement — pushing a cap-and-trade energy bill before health care — was a nonstarter. Even after that bill cleared the House in mid-2009, Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, made clear that it would never become law.
The “eye off the ball” critics have a point, but it relates to the second year of Obama’s presidency, not the first.
Just as Nixon had his “18.5-minute gap” on the Watergate tapes, so Obama had his 18-month gap, from the signing of the Affordable Care Act in March 2010 until the introduction of his jobs bill in September 2011.
If the president had pivoted more quickly from health care to a jobs agenda and signed a bill before the midterms, he would be better off politically and might even have helped the economy a bit.
But let’s not pretend health-care reform was a fatal Iraq- style distraction from the main event. Instead of costing thousands of lives, it will potentially save many more with its incentives for preventive care, among other historic provisions.
The public might not appreciate it yet, but Obamacare took leadership and guts from the president whose name it bears.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)