Obama's Big Ideas Problem

Thinking big depleted the president's political capital, leaving him almost a lame duck just a year into his second term.

At one point when passing a health care bill looked like forcing a square peg through a round hole, President Obama’s advisers suggested he scale back his ambitions. No less a Clinton administration veteran than Rahm Emanuel admits he begged Obama to ease up.

"This is about whether we're going to get big things done," Obama replied in a not-too-subtle dig at the Clintons. "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms."

Five years into his presidency, Obama is still looking for the next big thing. This week, he delivered his school uniforms and V-chips State of the Union address. All that was missing was the midnight basketball.

An executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers sounds impressive. But once you wade into the details, the number of people actually affected is vanishingly small. Despite the poll numbers being on the president’s side, legislation boosting the federal minimum wage for the rest of the country is unlikely to clear the Republican-controlled House.

Republicans might hand Obama a victory on immigration—the House leadership seems intent on caving on amnesty in all but name—but if conservatives stiffen their resolve, the Gang of Eight is as dead as McCain-Kennedy. That’s why Obama said relatively little about immigration in his address to Congress. He knows his fate there rests in GOP hands.

Otherwise, the speech was filled with trite appeals to the American can-do spirit and bite-sized Emanuel-like policy initiatives like “myRAs”. The president was back to promising to close Guantanamo Bay, which he hasn’t done since taking office in 2009.

We might end the war in Afghanistan this year. Then again, we might not. While the president is clearly no McCain-style dead-ender on the wars George W. Bush started, Obama’s plans for Afghanistan sound much like his blueprint for Iraq: we’ll stay in some capacity if the local government lets us; if not, we’ll leave and he’ll take credit for ending the war while trying to avoid blame for the post-withdrawal chaos.

At least he’d rather jaw-jaw than war-war with Iran.

The foreign policy content was marginally better than what his two Republican general election opponents would have delivered, the domestic policy incrementally worse. But overall it was hard to avoid the conclusion that his administration was spent, totally bereft of new ideas.

Obama may not have said anything as over the top as “Axis of Evil,” but the American people are tuning him out just as quickly as they did Bush—outside the respective parties’ adoring base voters.

What’s left is just a defense of what’s come before. “More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage—9 million,” Obama said. “And here's another number: zero. Because of this law, no American, none, zero, can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a pre-existing condition like asthma or back pain or cancer.”

In all that Obamacare bean-counting, the president did not separate the Medicaid enrollments from private insurance sign-ups. He did not quantify how many people who chose a plan through the exchanges have actually paid. He did not acknowledge that, at the beginning of the year, more people received cancellation notices than enrolled in new private plans. And he did not point out how many of the 9 million represent a dent in the previously uninsured population versus churn from old plans to new Obamacare-compliant ones.

“Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” Obama quipped, before asking the GOP to avoid “another forty-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans.”

Vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection this year, like Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, might welcome a chance to cast forty-something repeal votes before November. And note the president’s Republican friend who went unmentioned.

Tom Coburn has been in the news this week for two reasons. One is that the Oklahoma senator, who is battling prostate cancer, says he lost coverage for his oncologist due to the new law. The second is that he joined with two other Republican senators to introduce a detailed Obamacare alternative. Both facts were ignored in the president’s speech.

Obamacare has consumed Obama’s presidency. Health care reform and the nearly $1 trillion stimulus package depleted much of his political capital before his first term was even up. It certainly sapped the Democratic congressional leadership’s willingness to expose their members to risk.

Pages