The original sin of President Obama, politically speaking, was pushing his health care plan through Congress with Democratic votes alone. For rejecting even a veneer of bipartisanship, he and Democrats have paid an enormous price.
Five years after its passage, Obamacare is still controversial, viewed unfavorably by a majority or a plurality of Americans, depending on the poll. It has had a devastating political impact on Democrats across the country and was responsible, more than any other issue, for the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. Now Obamacare is highly vulnerable to repeal if the next president is a Republican and the party keeps control of Congress.
Obama should have known better. He violated a decades-long rule of thumb in Washington that an initiative significantly affecting tens of millions of Americans should have popular support and a bipartisan majority before being approved by Congress. Since Obamacare had neither, it has stirred protests and disunity, anger at Washington, and political polarization.
Obamacare was “the biggest mistake of his political career,” says Jeff Anderson, the executive director of the 2017 Project. “It showed his political naïveté.” It was especially damaging to Obama, Anderson says, “from his perspective of trying to transform the United States of America.”
The raw partisanship of Obamacare’s passage was a preview of Obama’s presidency. Rather than woo Republicans, Obama attacks them, questioning their motives and values. He makes no effort to compromise. He spurns bipartisanship. After Republicans won the House in 2010, he began to turn away from Congress and govern through executive orders.
On issues as sweeping as entitlements, the reason for bipartisanship is simple. It avoids discord and allows an initiative to sink roots and become a routine part of American life. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the interstate highway system, civil rights laws, federal aid to education—all were approved with large bipartisan majorities.
The original Social Security Act of 1935 had majority support from Republicans in the House (81 yes, 15 no) and Senate (16 yes, 5 no). Medicare and Medicaid were passed in 1965 with nearly all Democrats and half the Republicans voting for them. There have been efforts to reform these entitlements, but they’ve never been threatened with repeal. But almost from the moment Obamacare became law, Republicans have been demanding its repeal.
It didn’t have to be this way. But when the health care legislation was being drafted, Republican senators who wanted to have a role in shaping the bill were shut out. A small role might have satisfied them and won their votes. A few concessions surely would have. But none was offered. “Imagine FDR doing something like that,” Anderson says. “Or LBJ. No way.”
The story was only slightly different with Dodd-Frank, the massive measure to regulate financial markets and Wall Street, passed in 2010. In the Senate Finance Committee, then controlled by Democrats, Republican senator Bob Corker of Tennessee worked on the bill with then-chairman Max Baucus until Democratic leaders called a halt. The bill that passed was a Democratic document. Only three Republicans voted for it.
Dodd-Frank is unlikely to be repealed. But should Obama be succeeded by a GOP president, Republicans would pick it apart, particularly by eliminating the designation of financial institutions as “too big to fail” and thus eligible for a bailout, and by aiding small community banks crushed by Dodd-Frank’s mandates.
What’s surprising is that Obama failed to understand he could use Republicans to his advantage. In the early weeks of his presidency, he and Democrats stiffed Republicans in drafting the stimulus. Had they accepted tax cuts proposed by Republicans, the stimulus would no doubt have given a bigger jolt to the economy. And the package would have been bipartisan.
In negotiating with Iran, Obama could have argued for a better nuclear deal by invoking his ornery Republican opponents in Congress. They will attack the deal furiously and make it impossible for the American public to swallow, he could have told the Iranians—unless you offer concessions. Instead, it was Obama who offered concessions, Republicans are tearing the deal apart, and the public is wary.
The Iran pact is an executive agreement and like an executive order in one important respect: It can be revoked by the stroke of the next president’s pen. Indeed, GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker has vowed to kill the Iran deal on his first day in office.