President Obama pushed through a historic health care law. But in so doing Obama downplayed the historic nature of the economic crisis he had inherited, and the historic depths of anger in the country caused by it. Never mind the polls (which seem to be coming out by the minute now): if Obama is defeated in November, that will probably be why.
This is one of the most salient points to come out of a fascinating exit interview given to New York magazine by retiring Rep. Barney Frank, one of the most dominant House members in recent decades and generally a dogged ally of the president. Frank says he now regrets Obama's decision to focus on comprehensive health care reform. "I think we paid a terrible price for health care," Frank said.
His comments have touched off an interesting debate at Talking Points Memo over President Obama's priorities. Josh Marshall, TPM's founder, suggests Frank is wrong because health care reform was the right thing to do. "The fundamental question is: was it right to pass reform? Everything falls out from there," he writes.
I have a lot of respect for Josh, but I disagree. No one contests that the health care system needed to be fixed. But that's like saying that the fundamental question about whether to invade Iraq was whether Saddam Hussein was evil and deserved to be ousted. No, the fundamental question was priorities. Of course Saddam had to go at some point. But the issue is whether George W. Bush took his eye off the challenge posed by 9/11, which was the problem of al Qaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We now know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he did.
In politics too, the fundamental question is priorities. Obama's top economic advisors have taken to calling the shock of the nation's economic and financial crisis even "larger than what caused the Great Depression," as Tim Geithner said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. So it was even worse, they say now (which is true, based on the data). But that is just the point: given the challenge at hand, it's now clear, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Geithner and Obama's other top economic officials badly underestimated the depths of that historic crisis, on housing, income inequality and other fundamental issues. The president took his eye off the ball.
As I posted last week, and as the New York Times features on its front page today, some of the most striking evidence of their failure lies in the depressing fact that virtually all the income gains in the first year of this anemic recovery went to the top 1 percent, and most since then have as well, continuing a trend since 2000. What that amounts to is Reason No. 347 (or thereabouts) why, despite his truly remarkable achievement with health care, Barack Obama turned out to be no FDR. And why he could easily end up a one-term president.