Can Obama’s Overreach Be Overcome?

by J. T. Young

Could Obamacare be this president’s court-packing? While the time and presidencies are greatly separated, the two episodes have a striking similarity — they’re unpopular executive overreaches that undermined the public’s perception of the president. Franklin Roosevelt never fully recovered from his attempt; beginning the fifth month of implementation of Obama’s, America still waits to see if he will.

The health-care law was a profound policy change born during a severe economic crisis. A Democratic president and Democratic Congress combined for the strongest political position for any one party in almost half a century, and marshaled the full extent of that power to pass Obamacare.

The outcome of their efforts created a deep partisan gulf. Ominously, the law’s level of popular support never rose to the level of fundamental change it initiated or the power used to create it — to a substantial percentage of Americans, this felt like a huge overreach.

Modern American history’s quintessential example of that kind of behavior was FDR’s court-packing proposal. In response to its invalidation of several New Deal programs, Roosevelt proposed a plan in 1937 to appoint additional judges for each of the Court’s judges over age 70. The goal was clear: Break down opposition to the New Deal in the final branch of government that could stop its programs.

Public fallout was immense and immediate; opposition united Republicans and conservative Democrats. Because the Supreme Court backed off its earlier opposition in later rulings, FDR arguably won a strategic victory. However, it came at the cost of an enormous tactical defeat: Congress refused to act on his proposal and FDR never fully recovered politically.

As different as these two episodes might appear on the surface, there are important similarities: Critics of Obamacare saw it as overreach from the very start, but now it’s being seen as overreach by those who weren’t initially critical or were even supportive. It’s also now perceived as simply beyond government’s abilities to implement, as evidenced by its rollout and cascading delays. This sense of overreach will only grow if more problems emerge.

Roosevelt’s greatest loss was of his reputation for being beyond politics. After the court-packing attempt, he was seen as anything but. This threat is even greater for Obama.

Like FDR, Obama never was above politics at all, but he’s significantly benefited from the popular perception that he is, and has worked assiduously to cultivate that idea.

But the increasingly negative perception of Obamacare — unlike longer-standing dissatisfaction with the president on the budget and the economy — threatens to shatter the popular perception of Obama as “different.” Obamacare’s partisan creation, which seemed an advantage when it was popular, now greatly threatens the president and his party.

Where FDR and Obama and their two overreaches are most dissimilar is in their presidencies’ political reservoirs of support. FDR’s court-packing attempt followed him, and while he won two more reelections, his 1940 and 1944 popular-vote totals never matched 1936’s, despite his becoming a wartime president. The same held true for his party in Congress.

But Obama has nothing like FDR’s political capital. His 2012 popular-vote percentage was lower than his 2008’s — the first time that has happened for a president winning reelection.

For congressional Democrats, the threat is even greater. Obama will not run again, but they face voters again in November. Unlike their 1937 counterparts, who had built up overwhelming majorities in both houses while winning four consecutive elections, today’s congressional Democrats suffered a severe defeat just four years ago that cost them the House.

Perhaps Obama’s one advantage over FDR is that the fallout from his overreach is taking place after the fact. In contrast to FDR’s court-packing attempt, which never got to a vote, Obamacare’s vote has already taken place and Obamacare is already the law.

But Obama and Obamacare’s advantage is congressional Democrats’ disadvantage. The Democrats of 1937 refused to vote on FDR’s plan, but still suffered for it. Their counterparts today took a vote, and they have to account for it just over eight months from now.

— J. T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.