WASHINGTON — If Barack Obama loses his bid for re-election, the main reason can be traced to one period of time and one choice.
In late 2009, the Democratic House and Senate had passed health reform legislation and were proceeding with reconciliation talks. But in January 2010, Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat — as well as their filibuster-proof Senate majority — in a protest against Obamacare. It was a remarkable revolt, in the bluest of states.
“If there isn't any recognition that we got the message and we are trying to recalibrate and do things differently,” Rep Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said at the time, “we are not only going to risk looking ignorant but arrogant.” The concerns of some on the Obama team actually preceded the Massachusetts debacle. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had argued for a more incremental approach to health reform. “I begged him not to do this,” he later recalled.
The president went ahead, saying “I feel lucky.” In March of 2010, Obamacare was passed without a serious recalibration or a single Republican vote.
This choice unleashed a cascade of effects. Obama placed a highly ideological debate on the size and role of government at the center of American politics. He contributed to extreme polarization in Congress and the public. He exhausted his political capital on an issue that had little to do with the immediate economic crisis faced by the country. He invited the backlash midterm election of 2010, which effectively ended the creative period of his presidency.
Obama achieved all of this with a quick, dirty legislative shove that further discredited the political process. The final bill was passed through a maneuver — the reconciliation process — that embittered opponents and assured that a future GOP majority will engage in retribution. The final votes were secured through federal promises to states that smacked of bribery.
In claiming victory following passage of the bill, Obama said, “This is what change looks like.” Which was precisely the problem. Change came in the form of a law that a plurality of Americans opposed, at a time when other issues were more urgent, by methods that disgraced its advocates. “I think we paid a terrible price for health care,” retiring Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently concluded.