In 2009, Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it. They pushed through a stimulus package that barely offset the cuts in government spending at the state and municipal level, providing line-item veto power to a small rump of centrist Republican senators in exchange for bipartisan “cover.” And most of the rest of their “political capital” was spent on a Republican health care plan that the Republicans immediately demonized them for. Obama was determined that it be “deficit-neutral” over a ten-year period, and the conditions of its passage (using the reconciliation process, which was only necessary because of the Democratic majority’s foolish refusal to abolish the fillibuster) absolutely necessitated it.
This meant that most of its provisions wouldn’t even go into effect until four years later, so that the Democrats literally could not point to a single concrete benefit to a law that sounded… pretty bad. Yes, the Republicans exaggerated, as is their habit, but this was hyperbole that centered on an unavoidable truth about Obamacare: Americans would be forced by the government to give their money to some of the most hated and distrusted corporations on earth, whose continued profitability is taken as axiomatic under the terms of the health care reform law. Obamacare does a lot of good things other than that, and the insurance mandate has in fact decreased the number of uninsured — but the central premise of the law is one that is deeply offensive.
Obviously, there would have been a right-wing backlash against the first black president regardless of what he did. The Democrats were bound to lose ground in 2010 no matter what. But I think there can be no question that fear of Obamacare materially increased the swing to the right. And that’s because it gave Republicans a talking point that wasn’t obviously bullshit. They could make up stories about the corruption of the stimulus, or all the people who were undeservedly bailed out of their mortgages, or whatever, and the Democrats could always point out that those accusations are untrue or exaggerated. But they couldn’t deny that they had just passed a law that mandated every American who didn’t qualify for Medicaid to purchase (or have purchased for them by their employer) a private health insurance plan.
Handing that kind of red meat to the Republicans, which hits Americans right in the gut, in an area where they have a lot of justified fear and anxiety, was a huge unforced error. It led to a wasted presidency. Worse, it led to a huge amount of suffering at the state level, where Tea Party governors have destroyed everything they’ve touched. It has led to a baked-in advantage for the Republicans at every level of government other than the Electoral College, because the Democrats gave away the store during a fucking redistricting year. At the federal level, it has led to chaos and stagnation — creating a situation where the nation has narrowly avoided a gratuitous self-inflicted financial crisis due to the Republican weaponization of the debt ceiling (and Obama’s ridiculously irresponsible belief that he could “pivot” the default threat into a “grand bargain” on the deficit).
Obamacare did a lot of good things apart from the insurance mandate, and the mandate has reduced the number of uninsured and created circumstances where people with a pre-existing condition are no longer shut out of the individual insurance market. Those are good things, and I speak from a place of privilege as someone who does not have serious health problems or preexisting conditions.
But was it worth it? Was it worth a wasted presidency? Was it worth letting the Republicans run wild at the state level? Was it worth foreclosing the possibility of any significant legislation on climate change? The latter may have cost the Democrats just as much as Obamacare — but I would trade six years of hanging on for dear life so that the Republicans don’t repeal the climate legislation to six years of hanging on for dear life for the sake of “bending the curve” and getting down to “only” 11% of Americans uninsured.