Terrible Two for Obama Health Law

“[President Obama] went wrong by unloading too much too soon. He came forward with three trillion-dollar proposals. He had cap and trade, he had health care and he had the stimulus package and that was more than America could swallow. That led to the outbursts once they had a chance.”

-- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, talking to The Hill.

For all of the political pain that President Obama has suffered for his health law, it’s understandable that the White House would not want to make the two-year anniversary of the law’s enactment anything more than a “Hallmark holiday.”

Anger at the law was the biggest part of Democrats suffering their largest congressional defeat in nearly 60 years. It motivated conservatives, who believed it was an unprecedented power grab. It dispirited liberals who believed it was a muddled mess that missed the mark of the last great entitlement missing from the New Deal and Great Society. Worst, it annoyed moderates who wondered why their new president spent a year on a complex, partisan project while the nation’s economy remained on life support.

At a moment when Americans’ primary concerns were about the economy and a skyrocketing federal debt, Obama made one of the all-time great rookie mistakes in presidential history.

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Obama’s assumption upon taking office was that he would never again have the political capital to pass a true national health law of the kind that he had promised when running against Hillary Clinton.

Obama had talked about an audacious law and repeatedly blasted Clinton for her 1993-1994 effort and her 2008 proposal. Funny now to think that Obama’s biggest complaints about Clinton on health care was that her new plan included mandatory health insurance for all Americans and for conducting her past negotiations in secret.

From the time that Obama made his first call for Congress to pass the law in a February 2009 address to a joint session to the final throes of its passage 13 months later, the president had seemingly come to care much less what was in the legislation or how it was made.

The original idea had been to use Obama’s huge popularity, 2008 mandate and massive Democratic majorities in Congress to sweep through a laundry list of liberal legislation to rival that of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. As they said, never let a crisis go to waste.

Instead, Obama found himself mired in the quicksand of the health law. Democrats were deeply divided over what kind of entitlement they wanted, essentially rehashing the debate of the 2008 presidential primary. Obama wanted Congress to produce a law that met his requirements that he could then quickly sign. But eventually the president was forced to either abandon his quest or get into the messy business of making a law – cutting deals with drug makers and insurance companies, arm twisting restive lawmakers and backing the use of procedural shenanigans uncommon for the passage of a law of such magnitude.

The elders in Washington had warned Obama that he was doing too much, too fast and that he misunderstood the way Congress worked. But, having been in town for just two years before running for president and having built a career on audacious gambits, Obama brushed aside the warnings.

This time, the elders were right.

Congress ground to a halt over health care and the rest of Obama’s agenda – global warming fees, “cradle to career” public education, stringent financial regulations and even a missile treaty with the Russians – became trapped in the battle over Obama’s big law. Rather than being a part of a larger remaking of American government once promised, the health law became the definitive element of Obamism.

When given multiple chances to get away from the law – most notably, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts in what became a referendum on the legislation – Obama pressed on. The thinking was that if Republicans could block the law after so much time and effort, he would be forever branded a weakling and a failure. Team Obama concluded that enacting an unpopular law was bad, but that trying and failing would be worse.

And that’s when Obama gave up his brand for good. Obama ran in the general election on good government, bipartisanship and innovative thinking. He ended up sacrificing all of that in the name of victory on a law that ended up looking very little like what he had originally called for. Rather than being transformative, the Obama presidency had become just an amplification of what voters already disliked about Washington. When Obama packed the East Room of the White House for a partisan pep rally with chants of his campaign slogan for the signing ceremony two years ago today it was a fitting finale. It was hackish, not historical.

Bill Clinton had the political acumen to change course when his audacious agenda ran aground during his first term. Obama has instead concluded that his task was to reeducate the electorate. Unpopular at its inception and unpopular at it’s passage, Obama would convince Americans that they really liked its law. As he is now doing on energy, Obama has concluded that his task is to disabuse Americans of their views, not accommodate them.

We don’t know what end Obama’s energy education will meet. But we know where his health education effort stands today. On the two-year mark of the most significant law passed in Washington in 30 years, the president is standing silent and his re-election campaign minimizes the sweeping parts of the law and focuses on narrow provisions that could have easily passed with bipartisan support. Health law education has turned into health law evasion.

Only 23 percent of employers in a survey by human resources consultants Towers Watson were confident that their firms would be offering health benefits a decade from now. Four years ago it was triple that. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 20 million workers will lose their private insurance in the next decade.

With such uncertainty looming, most Americans would like to see the law either repealed or partly undone. And given the way the legislation was made, it’s understandable that voters would have little confidence in it.

The justices of the Supreme Court may yet bail out Obama and strike down the law, or at least big parts of it, before the election. But at the two-year mark, the legislation remains the unhappiest success of any modern American politician.