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What Obama Should Have Done in 2009

By Sean Trende - June 12, 2012

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One of the underlying themes of the book is that there’s something of an enduring conservative majority underlying American politics. Note that I didn’t capitalize anything, because the median voter in America is largely non-ideological, at least as we conceive of these things in today’s parlance.

The point isn’t that the median voter embraces the Paul Ryan plan and wants abortion to be illegal. Instead, there’s a long-standing strain in American politics that simply doesn’t like seeing the boat rocked, and that can be overwhelmed by large dollar signs, huge deficits, and radical policy shifts. At the same time, I think these voters can accept an awful lot of change much more easily if it is broken down into smaller bites -- Bill Clinton accomplished a lot post-1994, but a lot of it was gradual (even on health care, small things like Kennedy-Kassenbaum and SCHIP have had significant long-term effects).

Consider what was supposed to have been the model for Obama’s administration: The New Deal. The major accomplishments of the 73rd Congress included: the Emergency Banking Act (March 9, 1933); the Economy Act (a deficit reduction bill) (March 10, 1933); the Civilian Conservation Corps (March 31, 1933); the Agricultural Adjustment Act and FERA (May 12, 1933); the TVA (May 18, 1933); the Securities Act of 1933 (June 5, 1933); Glass-Steagall (June 12, 1933); the NIRA (June 16, 1933); and the Securities Act of 1934 (June 6, 1934).

To be sure, this scared contemporary conservatives to death, but for most Americans, the message was pretty clear: The president was focused on the economy and reforming Wall Street like a (yet-to-be-invented) laser. The themes of reform and recovery continued throughout the first two years of FDR’s term, before he began pursuing more flatly redistributionist measures with the Second and Third New Deals.

Now imagine if Roosevelt had passed the relief bills in one omnibus act at the beginning of his term, put off the reform bills until the end of his second year in office, turned to Harry Hopkins and said, “Let’s do Social Security and labor union reform now.” I don’t think the result would have been nearly as well received. Yet that’s basically what Obama did with the omnibus approach to the stimulus, and putting off financial reform until late 2010.

Instead, the president would have been much better off breaking the stimulus up into five or six pieces, spread out over his first 100 days. His presidency would have had a very different narrative attached to it if the first major piece of legislation passed by his administration had been $275 billion in tax cuts -- or even better, two or three pieces of tax-cut legislation, grouped by subject -- followed a week later by the unemployment compensation, followed a week later by the infrastructure spending, followed a week later by health care and education assistance, finished off with a miscellaneous bill.

For one thing, the headlines would have been dominated by the tax cuts, aid to the unemployed and to education, and so forth. Instead, there was a massive, amorphous “stimulus” with a $787 billion price tag for people to digest.

Quite frankly, Republicans would have supported at least some of the measures -- in fact, the “mini-stimuli” approved throughout late 2009 and 2010 almost all passed with substantial Republican support. So it would have been with a “pure” tax-cut bill that kicked off the president’s term.

As it became clear that the downturn was worse than expected, additional rounds of tax cuts and spending legislation would have been easier to pass, since Obama likely would have maintained a higher approval rating (remember that it was the perception of massive spending, rather than the economy, that initially drove down his approval ratings).

This should have been followed up with financial regulation that, even if imperfect, would have sent the message early on that he understood why he was elected. The bill could have been fixed later on in his term, if needed, but instead Congress turned to global warming, at best a tertiary issue for most voters in 2009.

If this template had been followed, I think the president would have had the political capital to get quite a lot done on health care reform, even if he wouldn’t have gotten the whole enchilada. A Medicare buy-in for voters over age 55, improvements to portability, the pool for people (such as yours truly) with serious pre-existing medical conditions all would have been popular, and easily passed as stand-alone legislation.

The president made a mistake by pivoting to health care reform in 2009, but this was really just an outgrowth of his desire to prove that the country can do “big things.” A more modest approach, reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s from 1996 to 2000, probably would have actually enabled him to accomplish more, and might have even helped to save the Democrats’ majority. Instead, by spending nine months engrossed in the health care bill, Obama lost his desired narrative, as well as control of Congress. If he ends up losing the presidency, he’ll lose the progress he made on health care, as well. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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