It wasn’t the House Republicans’ refusal to take up the president’s jobs plan before the last election. Or their reckless games with the debt ceiling when Paul Ryan’s budget called for trillions in fresh debt itself. Or House intransigence when it comes to the Senate’s bipartisan immigration fix. Or even its recent call to nix high, common school standards.
Not that these steps weren’t awful. But somehow they could be put down to “normal” petty politics. The “out” party never wants the jobs picture to improve before an election. The debt ceiling is one of a handful of “forcing devices” that pols of all stripes seize on in a town where nothing really has to happen. One can argue that immigration reform isn’t as urgent as, say, jobs. And stoking phony fears of a federal school takeover is the oldest slander in the book (never mind that these “common core” standards were adopted by states voluntarily, and that the world’s top-performing school systems all have something like them).
No, what finally made me lose it was House Republicans’ warped obsession with Obamacare. This fixation showcases so many noxious traits simultaneously that it reveals the ultimate character of the caucus.
At bottom, Obamacare is a moral assertion that it is wrong when a wealthy nation has 50 million people without health insurance, when medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy for families and when millions of luckless souls are unable to get coverage because they have preexisting conditions. The House GOP today says these are not real problems.
Obamacare addressed these problems with precisely the mechanism that conservative thinkers and Republican policymakers favored (subsidies to buy insurance from competing private carriers with a requirement that everyone be in the insurance pool). Yet the House GOP effectively has said: Even if you adopt the approach our party favors for a problem we used to say was real — a problem that our presidential nominee addressed successfully in his state — we still can’t be with you. We have to damn you as un-American. We have to deceive the public about your aims and methods. We have to do everything in our power to stop you from using our preferred approach to bring a measure of security to the middle class.
It’s the most perverse, irredeemable bait-and-switch since Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown. Even Lucy didn’t do it 39 times.
I’ve long been a critic of the House GOP. But something in their poisonous Obamacare stance has made me snap. It’s one thing to think you can’t do business with these people. It’s another to realize these people aren’t operating in the same moral and economic universe.
So here we are. The only question for those seeking American renewal is what will break this gridlock. The only certain answer is that the president’s speech Wednesday will not. Obama is calling for an economy built from the “middle out” (hats off to progressive activists Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, who pushed this smart messaging so relentlessly for two years that it’s become the official Democratic creed).
But it will just be words. Obama will say the right things. But he can’t do big things anymore. As with Bill Clinton, the affirmative phase of Obama’s presidency ended when he lost the House after two years. Two years on offense, six years on defense has become the modern Democratic presidential norm. It won’t suffice to renew the country.
And so the facts I noted in a recent column remain depressingly true. After eight years of Obama, 20 million Americans who want full time work won’t be able to find it; the United States will be more unequal than at any time since the 1920s; there will be less upward mobility in the United States than in most of Europe; 1 in 5 children will live in poverty; our school rankings will continue to slip internationally; poor children will still be assigned to the worst teachers and most rundown facilities in the country; 12,000 Americans will still die each year from gun violence; college will be less affordable and student debt higher than ever; half of all jobs will pay less than $35,000 a year; the wealthiest 400 Americans will have more assets than the bottom 150 million combined; our top banks will be bigger than before, and powerful enough to fight off rules meant to prevent a repeat of the financial meltdown; we’ll spend a third to twice as much per person on health care than other wealthy nations without better results; health insurance premiums will consume a third of the average family’s income; carbon emissions will continue to rise toward levels most scientists say threaten the planet; most Americans won’t be saving nearly enough to maintain their standard of living in retirement; and politicians will spend half their time groveling for cash from the 1/20th of 1 percent of Americans who bankroll their campaigns.
Nothing Obama says anymore can change any of this. Nor can 2014, because the smaller, whiter midterm electorate favors the House GOP.
Obama’s chief remaining policy task is to implement health reform successfully. Beyond this, if you think America needs to aim much higher, 2016 is the next great chance. We need a wave election that wins back the House for Democrats after a breakthrough campaign that durably changes public attitudes about the big things the country needs to do next. A campaign that also challenges Democrats to rethink some old assumptions that prevent the party from reaching its potential and advancing its cause.
It may sound premature or maudlin, but the real test of Obama’s speeches now is whether they contribute to what the race to succeed him sounds like. It can’t be easy for the president or his team to accept. But American renewal is all about 2016 now.