An Alternative History of the Obama Administration

Josh Kraushaar sketches what might have been had President Obama’s first term had focused on the economy’s health and immigration reform rather than coverage expansion:

Imagine if Obama began his presidency pitching an economic opportunity platform focused on, say, expanding job-retraining programs, extending the payroll-tax cut, and streamlining the tax code. Such measures would have showcased Obama’s commitment to the economy’s health, proving that he could pass legislation to meet his rhetoric. Remember: The president’s party held huge majorities in Congress to pass almost anything he wanted, within reason. With Democrats holding 60 Senate seats between September 2009 and February 2010, Republicans didn’t even have the opportunity to filibuster, unless they won over disaffected Democrats. With health care reform, Obama chose the path of most resistance, and paid for it both politically and at the expense of achieving other policy goals.

Without the costly haggling over health care, it’s reasonable to imagine Obama taking up immigration reform as an alternative path to spend his political capital. In the first term, then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel avoided the issue, worried that the numerous House Democrats in conservative districts would take a pounding at the ballot box in the midterms. With the benefit of hindsight, those fears seem overblown. Democrats lost 63 House seats anyway, leaving behind a caucus overwhelmingly in support of immigration liberalization. The party now views the issue as the GOP’s electoral kryptonite, but it probably could have passed comprehensive reform with votes to spare in a first term.

Republicans would have had a much harder time in 2010 and 2012 had they been running against an Obama administration that had put job-retraining programs, the payroll-tax cut, and mortgage relief – perhaps along the lines of the proposals devised by Glenn Hubbard and his colleagues — front and center. GOP candidates would have no doubt attacked job-retraining programs as boondoggles, the payroll-tax cut as endangering Social Security, and mortgage relief as “paying for your neighbor’s mortgage,” per Rick Santelli’s now-famous call for a Tea Party. But this is the kind of debate Democrats, including centrist Democrats, would want to have, as it would unite their various constituencies, with the possible exception of some deficit-phobic, tax-sensitive upper-middle-income voters, while fracturing the GOP coalition. Though many Americans benefited from the payroll tax cut in our universe, there wasn’t a groundwell of support for extending it further, which suggests that Kraushaar might be wrong about the political benefits of a more populist first Obama term. Still, I think he’s on to something.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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