The administration’s lost year

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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By any objective standard, the administration has hit its political stride. The problem is that it has done so a year late. For very different reasons, Democrats and Republicans alike should be thinking: What if the administration’s first year had not been lost?

With the enactment of health care and the impending passage of financial regulatory reform, 2010 is shaping up to be a productive legislative year indeed. In reality though, it is only now merely matching the expectations that brought this administration into office.

The presidency had been won with the largest percentage by a Democrat since Johnson in 1964. Democratic majorities in Congress were overwhelming. And press coverage was little short of fawning. It seemed they could do no wrong. Yet, their first year failed to meet expectations.

Certainly there were liabilities as well as assets. Most significantly, the recession proved deeper than most had predicted. The problems too of national security have proved more intractable than many on the Left had thought.

Yet the first year’s biggest liability was not an event but a nonevent. Health care consumed a year and momentum. The latter may have been regained, the former never can be.

Failing to pass health care in 2009 came while the electorate was at their most impressionable. The saying that “you only have one chance to make a first impression” is no more accurate than in politics. Year One passed without a signature accomplishment.

Delay also shaped perception of the legislation – anticipation raising expectations to a level that nothing could equal. Ultimately, its principle virtue in victory may have been the absence of defeat. Yet while it did not excite the general population, it greatly energized its opponents.

Health care’s belated passage has had a domino effect on the rest of the political agenda. Item after item has fallen backwards in succession.

Time was already precious in this election-shortened year. Now because of the health care spillover there is little left for expiring tax cuts, budget deficits, immigration, energy, the environment, and with base-rousing issues.

How different would things now be if health care had been passed in 2009? It would have given the administration far greater flexibility to address earlier this year’s top issues like the economy and reforming the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Instead according to a recent Pew Research Center poll (released 4/28 of 1,546 adults with a margin of error +/-2.5%), when it comes to the economy, 88% of the public rates it only “fair/poor” versus just 11% who rate it “excellent/good.” When the question is on the president’s handling of the economy, 54% disapprove, compared to 38% approving.

When the question is “how much progress has the government made in fixing the problems that caused the [financial] crisis,” 67% of respondents said “just a little progress” or “no progress at all” had been made. For a crisis that began two and a half years ago, that is not a good verdict on the government.

With more flexibility to address these issues sooner, the chance of avoiding those bad poll numbers would have been greatly improved. Now, even if legislation is passed, it will have no time for policy or political effect.

There also would have been less time to negatively define health care. The perception of the plan might well be better now. In that same Pew poll, only 40% of respondents approved of the president’s handling of health care, versus 51% who disapproved.

All this brings us back to November. If 2009’s lost year does lead to 2010 losses, then the dominoes could keep right on falling. Reduced, or even lost, congressional majorities will make future success all the harder. One need only see how unforgiving the public is now with relative success, to understand how well they will accept failure.

Presidents often pay big political prices for big policy. Reagan paid in 1982 and Clinton paid in 1994. Both lost congressional leverage for their future agendas. While both were reelected two years later, neither were ever as politically potent has they had been. The question such administrations must ask: was it worth it?

This administration too appears poised to pay such a potential price. If they do, can they honestly say that the return will have been worth it? Looking at their administration’s predicament, today’s Democrats must be haunted by the words of the 19th century American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier:

For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these
‘It might have been.’

And now may well never be.

The author served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 -2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987-2000.