Millard Grimes: President needs a mulligan

March 27, 2014 

President Obama's critics say he plays too much golf these days. They even have criticized him for spending time making out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament. But his problem is that he wasn't playing enough golf in the spring of 2009 when he overruled his chief advisers and decided to pursue passage of national health care insurance. In golf he would have gotten a mulligan, or a second first shot. On health care he had to play the ball out of deep rough.

Obama's chief advisers, all more versed in U.S. history, argued that health care should be delayed at least two years into his first term.

According to Jonathan Alter's definitive book "The Promise: Obama Year One," the three most persistent opponents of the early health care bill were Vice President Biden, Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and David Axelrod, Obama's campaign manager. Along with key Democratic senators, they argued that the nation's economic problems should be the focus with no distractions. The Great Recession is usually dated from September 2008, while George Bush was still president, but its roots were deeper than Obama realized and its effects were just beginning to pinch when he decided to go ahead on health care.

Ignoring health care's long record of failure in Congress even under more favorable conditions, Obama decided it would be easier to win approval in the first year than later. It was a historic miscalculation. He gambled not only his presidency but the fate of the Democratic Party, and of other economic welfare programs.

Five years later, the economy is still flat, with more people out of work in actual numbers than at the depths of the Great Depression. Democrats lost the majority in the House in the 2010 mid-terms and seem certain to lose the majority in the Senate in the 2014 midterms. Obama did manage to win reelection as president, but his favorable rating today is lower than Bush's numbers before the 2006 midterms in which Democrats regained control of Congress.

In 2009, Congress had just barely approved Obama's first major bill, the so-called Economic Recovery Act or stimulus bill as it was popularly or unpopularly known. It had passed the House without a single Republican vote, and it had struggled through the Senate only after adding many projects to assure 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Overall, the $800 billion plan rewarded many constituents. One-third of its total was tax cuts for everybody, amounting to the largest tax reduction since Reagan's supply-side tax cut of 1981; $50 billion went to states and municipalities; another $50 billion for infrastructure, the most since the Interstate Highway Act of the 1950s.

Most economists now credit the Recovery Act with preventing the recession from being worse. But as Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize economist wrote: "It was an underfunded Band-Aid."

Republicans followed the lead of Rush Limbaugh, who labeled the Act a "porkulus bill," and a payoff to various groups that supported Obama's election in 2008.

Difficulty in passing a bill that gave so much to so many was a warning sign of how hard it would be to win approval of more controversial measures -- and the most controversial of all promised to be national health care.

"Do you feel lucky?" one adviser asked Obama. He reportedly replied: "My name is Barack Hussein Obama, and I'm sitting in this office, so, yeah, I feel pretty lucky."

So the health care bill was finally pushed through a reluctant Congress but the journey was messy and cost some 50 Democrats their seats in the 2010 midterm election. It created the "tea party," which opposes nearly all government progress except for defense.

Actually, some parts of the healthcare program are quite popular, such as allowing children to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26, but overall the plan is too complicated for most Americans to understand and nearly 80 percent of Americans already had health insurance and suspected they were now going to be asked to pay the bill for the other 20 percent.

Health insurance reform was needed, but Obama's advisers were right. In 2009 the recession was the overwhelming priority. The anti-government passions unleashed by health insurance could jeopardize the entire economic safety net developed during the past 80 years to protect the modern society the U.S. has become.

Obama should take his mulligan now and try to cut Democratic losses in the midterm elections and soothe the fierce opposition that is weakening the nation as it faces new challenges in foreign policy as well as a stagnant economy.

By executive order he can suspend the individual mandate, as he has other features of the healthcare bill, and work to restore insurance policies cancelled because they couldn't meet the new standards, Mainly, he needs to regain control of the debate. The government already provides healthcare for nearly half of the population through Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' benefits and government employees. So this is not a radical departure from popular practice but that case has not been effectively made, even to the millions already benefitting from government-financed health insurance at the state and national level.

The struggle is endangering the nation's health, and Obama should take the lead in calming the waters.

Millard Grimes, editor of the Columbus Ledger from 1961-69 and founder of the Phenix Citizen. is author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II." A profile of Grimes can be found in the Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.

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