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Dems Wrong War: Health Care Amid Jobs Crisis

Dems Wrong War: Health Care Amid Jobs Crisis

By David Paul Kuhn - March 18, 2010

Barack Obama said 3,341 words before he advocated health care reform during his State of the Union address. It was indicative of the White House pledge to pivot to jobs in 2010. As early as last Thanksgiving, the president declared, "I will not rest until businesses are investing again and businesses are hiring again and people have work again."

Nearly four months later, Obama continues to spend most of his waking hours attempting to pass a health care bill. No legislation has so engulfed Washington in decades.

What's intriguing today is the thunderclap unheard. It's the greatest jobs crisis in three-quarters of a century. All political hands are on deck for health care. But to most Americans, the storm is elsewhere.

Quiet amid Washington's storm, the Senate sent a jobs bill to the president Wednesday. The bill provides $18 billion in business tax breaks to spur hiring. It's a start. But it will only matter on the margins.

"It is about 30 times too small," said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "What they are going to do will create at most a couple hundred thousand jobs. We have a job hole of over 11 million."

"The bill is so minuscule, even if every dime was spent over the next twelve months," said Brookings Gary Burtless, a former economist with the Department of Labor.

The two economists believe far more should be done. What can and will be done is another matter, however. Differing House and Senate measures are pending. The former concentrates more on infrastructure and the latter on business tax cuts. But even those measures, perhaps totaling as much as $150 billion, pale beside the scope of the crisis.

More than 6 million Americans have been unemployed for at least a half-year. That's double the previous record for long-term unemployment, in the early 80s, since tracking began in 1948. The Obama administration projects at least a 9 percent unemployment rate until 2011.

The Pew Research Center reported Thursday morning that a majority, 54 percent, say that someone in their household has been without a job or has looked for work in the past year. Only 39 percent said the same last February.

One in five adults say they have lost their job in the past year. And there is pervasive anxiety among those with jobs. One in four workers believe they will likely be asked to take a pay cut or be laid off in the coming year.

This explains why a majority, 52 percent, views the most important issue today as the economy and jobs. The second most important issue is health care, at only 13 percent, according to a February CBS/New York Times Poll. Yet Washington's priorities appear to be the inverse.

Pushing for universal health care is true to Democratic ideals. Should the bill pass, it would cap decades of effort – however imperfectly. It would be a large victory in pure legislative terms. But what agnostic observer, looking back, would still say the smarter move was not to focus exclusively on the economy in that first year, as FDR did?

The economic focus would have addressed the crisis of these hard times. It was the popular move. And the popular move can sometimes be the right move. It could have built up the American people's confidence and Obama's political capital. Democrats could have mustered that success for the predictably harder push, health care. But that's now in the past.

Instead, Democrats decided to go all-in on health care. We knew last summer that the stakes were high for Obama on health care. But the degree to which this president gambled on this issue was not foreseeable, at least not by this writer. It has cost Democrats an entire year and the bulk of Obama's remaining political capital. There is little tolerance left for big spending among moderate Democrats. And that hampers every jobs bill ahead. 

Washington is understandably obsessed with the political fallout of the health care bill. But there is the gap between what could have been done on the economy and what thus far has been done. And that economic expectations gap might haunt Democrats the most in the long run. It might cost Democrats their majority in the House.

Look where we are instead of the economy. Monday was the Ides of March – when ancient Rome celebrated the god of war – and without a hint of irony Democrats began to float an obscure procedural maneuver termed the "Slaughter Solution." Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch has repeatedly said, should the Democratic vote proceed as expected, that partisan "war" will be upon us.

Washington has already sunk into partisan war. But this much is clear – most Americans believe it's over the wrong cause.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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