“There was a four- or five-month span. But at that point, we had already put in place the [2009 stimulus package].”
-- President Obama in an interview with the Des Moines Register Editorial Board when asked whether he regretted devoting so much of his term to his 2010 health law instead of the economy during the time he enjoyed a Democratic supermajority in both houses of Congress.
President Obama took a turn as a political strategist in his editorial board meeting with the Des Moines Register, explaining that he did the right thing in devoting more than a quarter of his time in office to a controversial and unpopular health law.
As the president faces increasingly difficult prospects for re-election and Republican challenger Mitt Romney continues to hold a small but so-far durable lead in the polls, Obama was asked to revisit the turning point of his presidency and assess whether he was right to pursue the law that has done more than anything else to endanger his chances for a second term.
Obama’s thesis was that he really didn’t have any choice but to pursue the law. Obama explained that because of Republican obstructionism, he had to use the months in which he had supermajority support to pass the law because it is so essential.
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The fateful moment in Obama’s presidency was the January 2010 special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Both candidates made the race a referendum on the president’s law, Democrat Martha Coakley promising to push the legislation through and Republican Scott Brown promising to block it as the “41st vote.”
The battle over the bill had consumed the nation for more than five months as the president tried over and over again to rally support for the unpopular measure and corral enough Democrats to push it through on a party-line vote.
Massachusetts voters opted to reject the law and the Senate Democratic supermajority. Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority from April 2009 when Arlen Specter switched parties until February 2010 when Brown took office, replacing Paul Kirk, the Democrat who had been appointed to the seat after Kennedy’s death.
Obama managed to get a version of the bill through the Senate on a Christmas Eve party-line vote, but it was substantially different than the version House Democrats had passed by the House in October.
From August to January, the president looked for a way to bridge the gap between the Senate bill and the more liberal House bill, but mostly had to wait to see what voters in Massachusetts would do. And when Brown won, most expected the legislation was finished.
But after the election, Obama stunned many and opted to back the use of a procedural maneuver in the Senate to jam through the huge, highly controversial measure with a simple majority vote.
The decision to force through such a large change to something so intimate to the lives of voters was certainly audacious, especially having just been defeated in one of the most liberal and most Democratic states in the Union.
Obama argued that Republicans were unreasonable and vindictive so he was excused in his end-around play rather than either abandoning the law or modifying in a way to get even a single GOP vote.
While the president argues that he only had five months in which take advantage of the supermajority, he really had the better part of nine months. And even after that time ended, he pushed the bill through with a procedural trick, not a supermajority.
Remember that the reason the bill did not become law prior to March 2010 was Democratic resistance, not Republican intransigence. The president couldn’t keep his team together and then gave up on trying after Brown won.
Obama argued in Des Moines that he rightly used the time between April 2009 and February 2010 to focus almost exclusively on the health law because he couldn’t have obtained additional measures to help the economy in that time.
Obama said that having passed his first stimulus measure and having bailed out and remade General Motors and Chrysler, it would have been too soon to ask Democrats or Republicans to do more for the economy.
But what Obama misses in his analysis is that at a time when the nation was desperately worried about the economy and experiencing deep doubts about the massive federal borrowing involved in the president’s economic strategy he opted to force the issue of an expensive, intrusive new federal entitlement program.
Obama argues that he couldn’t have done anything for the economy, but he sure would have been better off with voters if he hadn’t done something that most of them believed would harm the economy.
And therein lies the central threat to the president’s re-election: the abiding sense in the American electorate that he had the wrong priorities and did not understand how to fix the economy.
He told the folks in Des Moines how politics forced him to do what he did, but Obama failed to, as he has all along, explain why his priorities were the right ones. He failed to explain how the health law was good for the economy or why it was worth terrifying business owners with the prospects of new taxes and new regulations in the midst of a recession.
Obama told the newspaper that he was controlled by events, but since the law was his idea and he was the one who stayed on the subject in the face of so much bipartisan opposition Obama should have instead made the case for his decisions and his actions.
Romney erred in playing political strategist about the “47 percent” in that he may have been right, but it was impolitic of him to say, or be overheard saying.
Obama erred in his analysis of his largest achievement and most vulnerable spot by declining to take ownership of his own actions and mount a vigorous defense of his priorities.
As has been the case on so many things, the president casts himself as a player in a larger drama rather than the lead actor.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“The theory I have is that they might have thought at the beginning it would be a terror attack and go out with it. But remember what happened between the attack and the Susan Rice appearance -- three days of unrelenting media coverage of Romney: The Romney statement, the attacks on Romney, the gaffe he made and all of that. The media were uninterested in the story. They might have made a calculation. The media is interested in the Romney stuff and not interested in the detail. We ride it out until election day.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.