Setting legislative priorities has been one of the chief tasks of American presidents for the past century. Sometimes, they concentrate on changing public policy. At other times, they highlight issues for political reasons, with an eye to the next election.
In his first 14 months in office, Barack Obama worked to change public policy, with partial success. He jammed through the stimulus package in February 2009 and health-care legislation in March 2010 on party-line votes.
But he paid curiously little attention to the substance of the legislation. One-third of the stimulus money went to state and local governments — i.e., to public-employee unions — which helped ensure that the bill would not hold down unemployment to the promised 8 percent. And the health-care bill, we have just learned from Health and Human Services actuaries, is going to increase spending rather than hold it down.
Now, Obama seems to be pivoting toward legislative priorities chosen not for policy but for political reasons.
The pivot is apparent from how he has depicted the financial-regulation bill before the Senate. No one disputes that some changes in financial regulation are needed. But the Democratic bill Obama is supporting would, contrary to his sound bites, enshrine rather than end the too-big-to-fail status of the giant Wall Street firms.
The bill does little to change the regulation of the ratings agencies that gave AAA imprimaturs to mortgage-backed securities that turned out to be worthless. And it does not explicitly impose higher capital requirements to clamp down on the huge leverage that made so many Wall Street firms billions and then caused them to crash and seek government bailouts.
Democrats need Republican votes to pass a bill, but have refused to make compromises so they can provoke roll-call votes that they can use during campaign season to argue that Republicans are soft on Wall Street. Politics over policy.
In the meantime, Senate majority leader Harry Reid sidelined cap-and-trade legislation in favor of immigration reform. Cap-and-trade, passed narrowly by the House in June 2009, had virtually no chance of passage in the Senate. Sidelining it allows Democrats to tell the dwindling number of environment-obsessed voters that they tried to act but were stopped by dirty Republicans — rather than by Democrats unwilling to vote for the bill.
On immigration, there are good reasons for changes in policy, but the Democrats don’t even have a draft of a bill. They hope Hispanic and other voters intent on legalizing the status of illegal immigrants will be satisfied if they make some noise on the issue — and will be turned off by Republicans if they attack “amnesty” in vociferous talk-radio tones.