Monday, November 02, 2009

Priorities


Robert Reich, who to date has been arguing that a healthcare bill must be passed before a limited window of opportunity closes, today argues that it's the wrong priority - that instead Obama should be trying to pass additional stimulus measures. Perhaps this isn't the "loss of discipline" Reich warned us about, but results from Reich's concern that the legislation that is likely to pass gives up too much to pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. But Reich doesn't offer much of an explanation.

The problem I have with this type of argument, whether from Reich or anybody else, is that it presupposes that the government is capable of only doing one thing at a time, and also that the government's priorities should change along with their own. Obama has largely deferred the healthcare reform debate to Congress, so who's to say he hasn't been working on other issues? More to the point, there's reason to believe that a healthcare reform bill, even if flawed, will pass, but there's no compelling reason to believe the same of another stimulus bill. I suspect that if Obama were to follow Reich's advice, abandoning healthcare reform while advocating for a @$trillion stimulus bill, he would look silly - and he would fail.
The optimist in me says Obama can pivot off a health-care victory and launch some new initiatives that palpably and quickly spur job growth. The realist says there aren't any such initiatives -- at least none that can work fast enough to reverse the tide of unemployment before the midterm elections.
Is the concern the long-term welfare of the nation, getting people back to work, or the next election? If a job-creating stimulus bill is good policy, it remains good policy even if its effects aren't felt for two years. With due respect to Reich's concern that "getting the nation back to work" is more important than healthcare reform, I can't help but feel that a failure to pass a healthcare bill combined with what now appears to be an unavoidably slow recovery would be worse.

Reich argues that, by focusing on the economy,
Clinton avoided Carter's failure and won re-election handily. But the Clinton years produced few if any major social reforms. Clinton spent so much of his initial political capital, as well as his time and energy, on deficit reduction that he didn't have enough left to enact health care in 1994.
So when he cautions Obama,
If Obama and the Democrats lose one or both houses of Congress in the midterms, it will be because the president learned only the most superficial lesson of the Clinton years. Health-care reform is critically important. But when one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, getting the nation back to work is more so.
I can't help but wonder if it's Reich who learned the superficial lesson of Clinton. Taking an "it's the economy, stupid," approach seems likely to similarly deprive Obama of the political capital necessary to enact healthcare or other reforms. And while Clinton did win reelection, it seems fair to observe that his inability to deliver on issues such as healthcare first cost the Democrats their Congressional majority, and later contributed to the election of G.W. Bush.

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