There’s a meme going around that health reform was a central strategic error of the early Obama presidency. On this view, it was a mistake to spend so long waging trench warfare to pass the Affordable Care Act. For example, Time’s Joe Klein believes that President Obama misread his mandate:
In 2008, Barack Obama wins a smashing electoral victory, largely because the public believes he’s a calm, cool adult who can lead the country out of an economic crisis. But for some crazy reason, he decides to focus much of his attention on passing a universal health care plan that has been the long-term dream of his party. This, despite polls that indicate nearly 80% of the public are satisfied with the health care they already have. The plan passes, but it’s so complicated, the public isn’t sure what’s in it (and is wondering why the President hasn’t focused similar attention on the economy), and Obama’s party is clobbered in the 2010 elections.
Klein personally supported health reform. So this indictment has added sting.
Although I disagree with Klein and others, I fear that one legacy of the health reform fight will be a certain domestic policy Vietnam syndrome facing any future new president who is contemplating addressing big complicated problems such as immigation or global warming. It’s all too easy to imagine his chief of staff closing the door and saying: “Do you really want to fight Verdun over this, risk possible failure, and sacrifice the best year of your presidency?” Our sclerotic legislative structures are damaging our ability to attack big problems.