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Working In These Times

Thursday, Mar 11, 2010, 8:03 am

Obama’s Futile Bipartisanship Quest: Bad for Jobs, Real Health Reform?

BY Art Levine

President Barack Obama listens to Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office, Feb. 24, 2010.   (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Now that President Obama is finally embracing reconciliation and seeking at long last to fire up his base in support of health reform, it's worth asking whether Obama's quest for bipartisanship cost us too much in lost jobs and meaningful health legislation.

And where was all this fiery anti-insurance industry rhetoric from Obama last year when the right-wing dominated messaging? Long after it became clear that the president wasn't going to get any Republican support for his proposals outside of a stray vote or two—whether for his $786 billion economic stimulus bill or for healthcare reform—he and Democrats continued to water down the bills in the search for an elusive 60 votes.

But both the jobs and health bills that have emerged don't fully address the problems they purport to tackle, although there's an emerging view among most progressives that's it's important to pass some form of health reform. But support for current health care proposals remains relatively tepid among progressive activists, and there hasn't been so far a large-scale mobilization among liberals for the sort of big-ticket spending on massive jobs programs needed to start making up for the 11 million jobs lost in the recession. 

As George Packer explains in an important New Yorker article, this was "Obama's lost year"—and his emphasis on fair-minded and inclusive political approaches in D.C. over actually producing results that average people can see has hurt him and Democrats considerably.

As this week's job report shows, there are now five or more job-seekers for each available job, even if we're not shedding 700,000 jobs a month like during the worst of the Bush recession. The valuable, but still too modest $150 billion bill that passed the Senate Wednesday, extends aid to the jobless and offers tax cuts, but it doesn't produce much in the way of new jobs now for the millions who need them.

UPDATE: That's why the AFL-CIO announced Thursday it is launching a nationwide series of 200  rallies and demonstrations at the offices of big banks and investment firms around the theme of "Make Wall Street Pay for Creating New Jobs."

But the political fall-out from the GOP's smear job on the first stimulus package makes getting a new, far-reaching jobs bill passed even more difficult this time around.

Packer, for instance, summarizes his main point about the original stimulus bill in a blog commentary  (the full article isn't online), "It's a look back at how and why things went wrong for the President in his first year, with a particular focus on the one piece of major legislation he managed to pass, the Recovery Act, which should have set the pace for a year of strong reforms.

"Instead, for reasons partly having to do with the construction of the bill, its effects were nearly invisible--ninety-four per cent of Americans don't think it created jobs in their area--and Republicans quickly called it a failure."

Indeed, even statistics showing that the recovery package saved or created nearly 2 million jobs -- much of them vital state and local government employees -- doesn't mean that it created lots of visible new jobs in the private sector, while the administration also hasn't effectively publicized the jobs they did create.

As Packer explains it, the political and policy weaknesses in the recovery package which, experts said at the time, should have been more expansive and focused more on job creation, set the template for problems with other reforms, including health care:

The stalled effort to pass health-care reform has dominated analysis of the Administration's difficulty in securing its agenda. But the key to Obama's first year is the Recovery Act. It set the pattern for everything that followed: intelligent but cautious policymaking; legislative compromises that watered down the bill's impact without enlisting more than a tiny number of Republicans; an immediate campaign by opposition politicians and media to declare the program a failure; a weak, uncoordinated Administration effort to explain and champion the stimulus package; gradual public disillusionment. A year later, Obama has few options left in the battle with stubborn joblessness.

A centrist, Packer also states in a self-evident way what mainstream progressive groups have often denied in public: that they and the administration until late last year pulled their punches in going after the healthcare industry while Obama was still negotiating with key stakeholders. Noting that Obama took a conciliatory approach because he believed he needed Republican votes, he points out that it came at a high cost:

The White House and its allies didn't push for advertisements against insurance and drug companies; they didn't take the offensive early on to create outside pressure on Republicans in Congress [and my view: didn't create such pressure on wavering Democrats]; and they didn't effectively use the Obama grass-roots movement and progressive organizations to embarrass Republican senators in vulnerable states like Ohio and Maine.

Those sort of compromises have also affected financial reform and the willingness of the administration to actually spend what it takes to help Americans truly recover from the recession.

In Packer's piece, he looks at the impact in south-central Virginia, with unemployment in some sections as high as 20%, and the reactions of workers and a first-term Democratic Congressman, all saying that Obama had an opportunity he didn't seize:

Dean Price, the owner of a truck stop outside Martinsville, Virginia, which produces biodiesel fuel, told me: "The American people were thinking radical change--not the status quo. Just the way Obama blamed Bush after 9/11, saying, "You told America to go shopping," people are going to point the finger at him and say, "You had an opportunity and you wasted it."

I also spoke several times at length with the area's congressman, an impressively blunt and courageous young freshman Democrat named Tom Perriello. He barely won the Fifth District in a recount in 2008, and is considered highly vulnerable this year. Perriello is a true member of the Obama generation, but he sharply criticized the Administration, not for trying to do too much, but for being too cautious and too close to Wall Street:

"We should have gone in and done the kind of stimulus that would actually turn the economy around. We ended up with something that was strong enough to prevent a depression. But it just wasn't strong enough to stimulate the recovery."

The upshot is that Democrats and the White House are seemingly comfortable with high unemployment as not requiring more urgent action. While labor and some progressive allies demand more dramatic, high-impact spending, like the Economic Policy Institute's $400 billion plan that could create 4.6 million jobs in its first year, Packer and others have found there isn't the appetite in Congress for that kind of spending anymore -- in part due to the political trashing of the first stimulus.

Yet as Bob Herbert of the New York Times observes, it's not just better messaging, but delivery of new, tangible jobs that are needed now:

The talk inside the Beltway, that super-incestuous, egomaniacal, reality-free zone, is that President Obama and the Democrats have a messaging or public relations problem...

That's just silly. People are upset because they are mired in economic distress and are losing faith that their elected representatives are looking out for their best interests. They've watched with increasing anger as their government has been hijacked by the economic elite...

It's not the message that's a problem for Mr. Obama and the Democrats, it's the all-too-clear reality. People know that the government that is supposed to be looking out for ordinary people -- for working people and the poor -- is not doing nearly enough about an employment crisis that is lowering standards of living and hollowing out the American dream.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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