President Obama is a gift to Republicans. His policies, his partisanship, his allegiance to liberal interest groups, his indecisiveness—they all have served Republicans well. Without Obama’s self-destructive presidency, Republicans would probably be somber today. Instead they are bursting with optimism about the November midterm election.
It didn’t have to be this way. And it wouldn’t be, had the president shown more foresight and less insistence on getting whatever he wanted, pretty much in the form he wanted. Congressional Democrats had a hand in this. But the policies were his. Obama was in charge. He’s responsible.
For starters, the political impact of Obamacare could have been different. It was never popular, but the president made it less so by violating a rule of thumb in enacting an entitlement: It must have popular support and pass with a bipartisan majority. Obamacare had neither. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit had both.
In 1935, FDR’s original Social Security Act drew Republican majorities in the House (81-15) and Senate (16-5). In 1965, Medicare and Medicaid attracted nearly all Democrats and half the Republicans. In 2003, the GOP-sponsored drug benefit got the votes of only 9 Democrats in the House but 35 of 48 in the Senate.
With large Democratic majorities in Congress in his first two years in office, Obama made no serious effort to bring Republicans on board his health care bill. That would have meant negotiation and compromise, which he spurned. In 2010, Republicans in the House and Senate voted unanimously against it. The result: The president and Democrats own Obamacare, totally.
Last week, the health care law, its calamitous rollout, and Obama’s broken promises claimed their first electoral victim. The special election for a House seat in Florida was primed for a Democratic takeover. Obama had won the district twice, and Democrats had their best possible candidate, Alex Sink. When she narrowly lost the race for governor in 2010, she got 49 percent in the district. Yet she lost 49-47 percent to Republican David Jolly in the House race.
The reason was Obamacare. Jolly wasn’t an ideal candidate. Three other Republicans had been recruited but declined to run. Jolly was attacked for being a Washington lobbyist. He was a poor fundraiser, and Sink outspent him 4-1 on advertising. A week before the election, Republican officials in Washington disassociated themselves (anonymously) from Jolly in Politico. They expected him to lose.
All Jolly had was an issue, Obamacare. Sink hadn’t voted for it since she wasn’t in Congress. But in the campaign she embraced the Democratic mantra of “mend it, don’t end it.” That failed to connect with voters.
If Sink’s defeat didn’t strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable Democrats, it was only because they were already fearful. Democratic senators like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas had seen their poll numbers drop earlier, largely because they’d voted for Obamacare.
With support from some Republicans—fewer than a majority would have sufficed—Obamacare wouldn’t be as ripe a target as it has become. It would have a bipartisan tinge. What would Obama have had to offer to get Republican votes? Probably very little. In 2009, when the bill was drafted, Republicans were in a state of shock after losing badly in the 2006 and 2008 elections. But Obama didn’t take advantage of this opportunity. His partisanship prevailed.
The same is true with the economic “stimulus.” The president wooed three GOP votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster. That was it. Every House Republican voted no. For this, Obama has paid a double price. The economic recovery is the weakest in decades, and a solid majority of Americans believe we’re still in a recession (it actually ended in June 2009).
Obama could have adopted private sector incentives sought by Republicans. He wasn’t interested. His plan was government-only, with tens of billions for unionized public sector employees. White House claims that the stimulus created or saved 1.6 million jobs per year in its first two years are not credible. On the contrary, the percentage of Americans in the workforce has shrunk to the lowest level since the 1970s. And there are fewer jobs today than in 2007.
Again, it could have been different. Had Obama compromised with Republicans and added incentives for private investment and job creation, the economy would in all likelihood have grown more robustly. And Republicans wouldn’t have a “growth and jobs” theme in 2014. House speaker John Boehner said last week it’s the best issue for the GOP.
For the president, approving the Keystone pipeline—stretching from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast—should have been a snap. The State Department had studied it and concluded there was no significant environmental downside. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper visited Obama in 2009 and stressed how important the pipeline was to his country, our closest ally and trading partner.
Yet Obama dawdled. The interest group that he fears the most, the conglomerate of environmental groups, was against it. Another study was ordered, then another—with the same conclusion. Polls showed building the pipeline was enormously popular with the public. As Obama delayed a decision, opposition by environmentalists increased. It became their top issue, an emotional one.
Keystone not only symbolized Obama’s energy policy—anti-oil and natural gas, pro-green power—it emerged as a major issue in its own right. Republicans criticized him. Some Democrats agreed. His indecision had left him in an awkward position. Whatever his decision, there will be a backlash.
In 2014, Republicans are the lucky party. Obama has given them powerful issues. Without them, they’d be talking about the deficit, the national debt, big government, entitlement reform, and Obama’s failure as a foreign policy president—legitimate issues but not the ingredients of a Republican landslide. The issues Obama fumbled—Obamacare, the economy, energy—are.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.