Obama's Bipartisanship Quest: Bad for Jobs, Health Reform?

05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Art Levine Contributing Editor, The Washington Monthly

Now that President Obama is finally embracing reconciliation and seeking at long last to fire up his base in support of health reform, it's worth asking whether Obama's quest for bipartisanship cost us too much in lost jobs and meaningful health legislation. And where was all this fiery anti-insurance industry rhetoric we've seen recently from Obama last year when the right-wing dominated messaging? Long after it became clear that the President wasn't going to get any Republican support for his proposals outside of a stray vote or two -- whether for his $786 billion economic stimulus bill or for health care reform -- he and Democrats continued to water down the bills in the search for an elusive 60 votes, and that's before the GOP won in Massachusetts.

But both the jobs and health bills that have emerged don't fully address the problems they purport to tackle, although there's an emerging view among most progressives that's it's important to pass some form of health reform. But support for current health care proposals remains relatively tepid among progressives, despite some last-minute rallies, and there hasn't been a large-scale mobilization among liberals for the sort of big-ticket spending on massive jobs programs needed to make up for the 11 million jobs lost in the recession. (That could start to change this week with a new AFL-CIO-led campaign to target Wall Street to help pay for good jobs.) There are now five or more job-seekers for each available job, even if we're not shedding 700,000 jobs a month like during the worst of the Bush recession.

The valuable, but still too modest $150 billion bill that passed the Senate last Wednesday extends aid to the jobless and offers tax cuts, but it doesn't produce much in the way of new jobs now for the millions who need them.

That's why the AFL-CIO announced last Thursday it is launching this week a nationwide series of 200 rallies and demonstrations at the offices of big banks and investment firms around the theme of "Make Wall Street Pay for Creating New Jobs."

(You can read the full story of the legacy of Obama's bipartisanship drive at the Working In These Times blog.)

But the political fall-out from the GOP's smear job on the first stimulus package makes getting a new, far-reaching jobs bill passed even more difficult this time around.

As George Packer explains in an important New Yorker article, this was "Obama's lost year"-- and his emphasis on fair-minded and inclusive political approaches over producing results that average people can see have hurt him and Democrats considerably.

Packer summarizes, for instance, his main points in a blog commentary about his findings (the full article isn't online), "It's a look back at how and why things went wrong for the President in his first year, with a particular focus on the one piece of major legislation he managed to pass, the Recovery Act, which should have set the pace for a year of strong reforms. Instead, for reasons partly having to do with the construction of the bill, its effects were nearly invisible--ninety-four per cent of Americans don't think it created jobs in their area--and Republicans quickly called it a failure." Even statistics showing that the recovery package saved or created nearly 2 million jobs -- much of them state and local government employees -- doesn't mean that it created lots of visible new jobs in the private sector.

As Packer explains it, the political and policy weaknesses in the recovery package which, experts said at the time, should have been more expansive and focused more on job creation, set the template for problems with other reforms, including health care:

The stalled effort to pass health-care reform has dominated analysis of the Administration's difficulty in securing its agenda. But the key to Obama's first year is the Recovery Act. It set the pattern for everything that followed: intelligent but cautious policymaking; legislative compromises that watered down the bill's impact without enlisting more than a tiny number of Republicans; an immediate campaign by opposition politicians and media to declare the program a failure; a weak, uncoördinated Administration effort to explain and champion the stimulus package; gradual public disillusionment. A year later, Obama has few options left in the battle with stubborn joblessness.

A centrist, Packer also states in a self-evident way what mainstream progressive groups have often denied in public: that they and the administration until late last year pulled their punches in going after the health care industry while Obama was still negotiating with key stakeholders. Noting that Obama took a conciliatory approach because he believed he needed Republican votes, he points out that it came at a high cost. "The White House and its allies didn't push for advertisements against insurance and drug companies; they didn't take the offensive early on to create outside pressure on Republicans in Congress [and my view: didn't create such pressure on wavering Democrats]; and they didn't effectively use the Obama grass-roots movement and progressive organizations to embarrass Republican senators in vulnerable states like Ohio and Maine."

Those sort of compromises have also affected financial reform and the willingness of the administration to actually spend what it takes to help Americans truly recover from the recession.

In Packer's piece, he looks at the impact in south-central Virginia, with unemployment in some sections as high as 20%, and the reactions of workers and a first-term Democratic Congressman, all saying that Obama had an opportunity he didn't seize:

Dean Price, the owner of a truck stop outside Martinsville, Virginia, which produces biodiesel fuel, told me: "The American people were thinking radical change--not the status quo. Just the way Obama blamed Bush after 9/11, saying, "You told America to go shopping," people are going to point the finger at him and say, "You had an opportunity and you wasted it."

I also spoke several times at length with the area's congressman, an impressively blunt and courageous young freshman Democrat named Tom Perriello. He barely won the Fifth District in a recount in 2008, and is considered highly vulnerable this year. Perriello is a true member of the Obama generation, but he sharply criticized the Administration, not for trying to do too much, but for being too cautious and too close to Wall Street:

"We should have gone in and done the kind of stimulus that would actually turn the economy around. We ended up with something that was strong enough to prevent a depression. But it just wasn't strong enough to stimulate the recovery."

The upshot is that Democrats and the White House are seemingly comfortable with high unemployment as not requiring more urgent action. While labor and some progressive allies demand more dramatic, high-impact spending, like the Economic Policy Institute's $400 billion plan that could create 4.6 million jobs in its first year, Packer and others have found there isn't the appetite in Congress for that kind of spending anymore -- in part due to the political trashing of the first stimulus.

Yet as Bob Herbert of the New York Times observes, it's not just better messaging, but delivery of new, tangible jobs that are needed now:

The talk inside the Beltway, that super-incestuous, egomaniacal, reality-free zone, is that President Obama and the Democrats have a messaging or public relations problem. We're being told -- and even worse, Mr. Obama and the Democrats are being told -- that their narrative is not getting through. In other words, the wonderfulness of all that they've done is somehow not being recognized by the slow-to-catch-on masses.

That's just silly. People are upset because they are mired in economic distress and are losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests. They've watched with increasing anger as their government has been hijacked by the economic elite...

It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, it's the all-too-clear reality. People know that the government that is supposed to be looking out for ordinary people -- for working people and the poor -- is not doing nearly enough about an employment crisis that is lowering standards of living and hollowing out the American dream.