Saturday, May 15, 2010

If Not Now, When?

Michael Tomasky gleefully reports that in the summer of 2009, Rahm Emanuel urged President Obama to ignore health care for the time being in order to focus on jobs. Tomasky is gleeful because he believed the same thing.

I really disagree with both Emanuel and Tomasky. From a sheer political perspective, maybe they have a point. The economy was horrible in 2009 and its failure to improve rapidly has hurt Democratic chances in the 2010 elections. Some criticism of the Democrats does hit home, particularly that Obama acted to protect big banks and auto companies and not working people.

However, we can challenge these arguments both on their merits and on their political acumen. First, had Obama not bailed out the banks and the auto makers, would unemployment be 15% now? It's a clear possibility. Certainly Obama didn't channel populist anger toward big corporations. I would have liked to see a little more of that, but his moves helped stabilize the economy and begin to move it back on the right path. Now, I definitely believe that the nation has only touched the surface in dealing with the structural problems that led to the recession, but that's not strictly or even primarily Obama's fault. In any case, for the time being, his measures seem to have helped.

But more to the point, Obama's decision to plow ahead on health care makes a lot of sense. The idea that you can put off a social program or legislative platform until later makes no sense. Political capital gets spent very easily. If anything, Obama was not aggressive enough in spending it, letting a lot slip through his fingers. But he was elected on a platform that included major changes to health care. He made that his top priority and he got at least some semblance of his plan passed. This is a huge legislative achievement, particularly in today's political climate.

You can make choices about legislative and political priorities. But on issues you don't prioritize, you absolutely cannot assume that you can just get to it later. Obama wanted his legacy to rest on health care and indeed it will.