Politics & Policy

Waiting on the Supremes

Is Obamacare a historic blunder or merely an election-year albatross?

We’re all waiting to see if Obamacare will be spared, gutted, or tossed into the ash heap of history by the Supreme Court on Thursday. In a new Purple Strategies survey of former Supreme Court clerks and attorneys who have argued before the Court, 57 percent believe the individual mandate, the heart of the law, will die. In April, Obama himself engaged in some gallows humor after the Supreme Court justices roughed up his law in oral argument: “In my first term, we passed health care reform. In my second term, I guess we’ll pass it again.”

But if Obamacare vanishes or the individual mandate is eliminated, look for Democrats to panic. There will also be comparisons to Jimmy Carter — the last Democratic president to lose reelection — and his “malaise” period.

It’s never good if a president’s central domestic-policy achievement is trashed months before an election, and in this case it could be politically fatal. In a new poll by the GOP-oriented Young Guns Policy Center, independent voters agree by 55 to 37 percent on this point: “President Obama did the wrong thing by focusing on passing health care reform his first year in office. He should have worked harder to get the economy going and creating jobs before moving on to other issues.”

In retrospect, it’s clear that Obama’s insistence on ramming through his 2,700-page Rube Goldberg legislative monstrosity in the dead of night seriously damaged the post-partisan brand he ran on in 2008. Obamacare clearly wasn’t the “hope and change” the candidate had promised. A Fox News poll in April found that by 55 percent to 37 percent, Americans thought members of Congress hadn’t read the bill and that the law wouldn’t have passed if they had read it.

Frank Bruni, a liberal New York Times columnist, spoke for a lot of liberals I know this week when he described Obama’s hapless position as a leader: “He’s beholden to lawmakers’ whims, buffeted by global winds, as much a spectator as an agent of the most important developments around him. . . . At times he looks dazed, and flails. To focus his economic message, he gave an unfocused 54-minute speech on the apparent theory that the more sentences in the mix, the greater the odds of a keeper.”

Others are openly saying today’s political environment reminds them of the summer of 1980, when the wheels came off Jimmy Carter’s presidency. “I have resisted such comparisons till now, but it’s clear people are losing confidence in Obama on many levels,” says Pat Caddell, who was Carter’s pollster. He notes that Carter’s clear lead over Ronald Reagan evaporated in the summer of 1980, that the race remained tight until the only debate the two men had, and that the election then turned into a Reagan landslide. “If the economy remains weak or deteriorates, we could see the same result this year,” Caddell says.

The two men — Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama — had different liabilities going into their reelection fights. In terms of voter perception, Obama’s problem with Iran today pales in comparison with the hostage crisis Carter faced in 1980; and today’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate exceeds Carter’s rate of 7.1 percent. But both men completely misread the mood of the country and insisted on lurching in an ideological direction that was unsuited for the times.

In his new book, The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, New Republic writer Noam Scheiber shows that fatal errors were made even before Obama took office. In a conference call with advisers in December 2008, Tim Geithner, Obama’s designated choice for treasury secretary, warned Obama to focus on the economy. The financial crisis had created conditions that would constrain the president and delay action on some parts of the platform Obama had touted during the campaign. “Your signature accomplishment is going to be preventing a Great Depression,” Geithner said. Obama wasn’t happy. He shot back, “That’s not enough for me.” Geithner persisted, saying, “If you don’t do that, nothing else is possible.” Obama wouldn’t accept that: “Yeah, but that’s not enough.” Obama’s ideology and desire to be a transformative president along the lines of an FDR or an LBJ would trump the reality of the facts on the ground.

If Obamacare is tossed aside in whole or in part by the Supreme Court tomorrow, history will view the bill as one of the most remarkable blunders made by any president — both in terms of policy and politics. Even if it is upheld, Obama will have to carry it as an albatross into the fall campaign knowing that the majority of likely voters want it repealed, and they can accomplish that goal in only one way: removing him from office.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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