Health Care Law Could Fall, and With It Obama's Legacy

Health Care Law Could Fall, and With It Obama's Legacy

By David Paul Kuhn - June 17, 2011

It was the first minutes of Monday's Republican debate. Michele Bachmann pledged more than to simply "not rest until I repeal Obamacare." Her subsequent words betrayed the higher stakes ahead: "This is the symbol and the signature issue of President Obama, during his entire tenure."

Obama's signature legislation is indeed on the line. As is his tenure. His legacy. This vision of liberal governance. It could all still, after so much, fall apart.

There are myriad potential scenarios. The Supreme Court overturns the health care law (or at least its individual mandate). Republicans win a Senate majority in 2012. Obama is defeated.

These scenarios set the stage for (potentially) lethal blows to Obama's definitive legislation. One legislative tactic, called reconciliation, empowers Republicans to take down critical components of the law with only a simple majority in the Senate -- though that move is far easier written than done.

Definite predictions are a professional hazard this far out. As top-shelf congressional scholar Tom Mann, of the Brookings Institution, put it, "I honestly don't know what will happen."


"But listen, I think the 2012 election is hugely consequential," Mann continued. "If Republicans took control of the White House, as well as the Senate, even being a few votes short of cloture, I'm convinced they would succeed in repealing most or all of the health care law."

However it's done, if it's done, much of Obama's legacy would be undone. Obama and the Democratic leadership made decisions in 2009 that will reverberate politically for decades. Democratic philosophy -- active-state liberalism, government as a means to promote the common good -- was fully invested in the choices of Obama's first year, a point this writer has admittedly belabored. Democrats made immense legislative sacrifices to win their prize.

Those sacrifices could be for naught. The new New Deal that never came to pass. Recall that rare chance. A president had the political capital to cobble a bill large enough to substantially impact the economy. But the average American worker was never bailed out.

We cannot know what might have been. What if Obama had focused his first year on the great issue of this time, as FDR did in his time? Obama won the health care overhaul, which was never popular. He could have certainly won a major jobs bill, which was always popular. Would that have granted Obama momentum for more? A financial bill that actually ended "too big to fail"? Other Democratic ambitions -- some measure of legislation on climate change or immigration?

Obama sought the great liberal dream instead -- universal health care. The White House seemingly did not grasp the gamble. Obama was wrongly said to have remade our politics, whereas his majority was born with the September 2008 crash and in time, fell as that fact was forgotten. The distance between mandate and actions grew. His coalition predictably fissured with that distance, as he learned demographics are not destiny. Even the everyman concern for health care costs went largely unaddressed. Independents predictably left Obama his first summer in office. The economy was recovering but health care consumed DC. Bailout for the big guy. Health care for the little guy. The middleman was forgotten. Independents never returned. Yet at least, from Democrats' perspective, they had something historic to show for all they sacrificed. And if the law holds, 32 million more Americans will have health insurance. Not small sacrifices. But no small feat.

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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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