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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

The Inaugural Mismatch



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One of the ironies of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, according to Artur Davis, is that it represented a “fulsome presidential defense of liberalism,” yet it will precede a second Obama term that is unlikely to produce much in the way of tangible legislative accomplishments:

Given the alignment in the House, and the number of red state Democratic senators on the ballot in 2014, there is no viable chance Obama can actually enact a single item on the liberal wish list. Not one–from an assault weapons ban to an overhaul of corporate deductions, to cap and trade, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a government financed infrastructure plan, to a recalibrated war on poverty, to campaign finance reform.

So, Obama Part 2 is more about the tactical work of isolating conservatives than classic presidential legacy building: in other words, not so different from the stalemate of the second half of Obama’s first term. Of course, for liberals, the president’s middling results have had the perverse consequence of providing a rallying cry without a record of accomplishments that are susceptible to backfire (the backlash at Obamacare is a window into how vulnerable Obama might have been if he had managed to pass legislation on immigration or climate change).

My only disagreement with Davis is that the president might be able to secure some limited cooperation from congressional Republicans on immigration reform, particularly if the GOP has significant buy-in, and perhaps on infrastructure. But his broader point is well taken. That is, had the 111th Congress achieved all of the objectives set out by the president and his left-liberal allies, e.g., had congressional Democrats succeeded in creating a real carbon pricing, one can imagine that the current political playing field would be far more favorable to Republicans. The GOP would have been able to make a popular case against a deeply unpopular measure without leaving its ideological comfort zone. Instead, the center-right coalition finds itself in a far more difficult environment, as Davis explains:

This entirely unpredictable element–that gridlock has spared Democrats the consequences of their policies floundering–coupled with the shifting demographics that Republicans have struggled to adjust to, have left an altered political landscape. If not quite the liberal dawn that some Democrats are prematurely celebrating (as they did four years ago), the terrain is changed enough that major stretches of Obama’s speech already seem more boilerplate than visionary.

And in that shifting space, Republicans have lost ground. For example, there will still be a robust immigration debate, but the goal of deporting large-scale numbers of undocumented immigrants is a political non-starter. The Affordable Care Act will remain controversial, as premiums rise and its taxes and mandates touch real lives and businesses, but the baseline of the fight will be an acceptance that universal healthcare is a contemporary social value. Republicans will contest the inevitable new taxes Democrats propose, but with the burden of having conceded that not all tax increases kill job growth.

Many conservatives will resist Davis’s conclusion, but it is important to specify what the new baseline does not mean: it does not mean that conservatives will have to salvage and defend the four-tranche system created by the ACA. Rather, it means that the center-right will have to offer a more ambitious health system overhaul, which will ideally move us towards a system that is more sustainable, more market-oriented, and more likely to spur business-model innovation than the pre-ACA status quo.

Ultimately, as Avik Roy has suggested, this could mean shifting Medicare and Medicaid in the direction of private providers competing to offer a defined benefit at a cost taxpayers are willing to bear. President Obama’s reelection represents a significant setback for the right. But the fragility of the ACA, and the delays and cost overruns that will likely emerge in the years to come, will tend to overcome the risk-aversion of the electorate regarding health system reform, as lived experience of the ACA will make serious reform efforts seem more palatable. To be sure, this will be true of serious reform efforts from the left, including single-payer, as well as from the right. Center-left thinkers have already started thinking through the second round of cost-control-oriented health system reforms post-ACA, but center-right thinkers are just getting started.



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