David Brooks has a column today offering a counterfactual scenario in which Obama entered office, passed a massive payroll tax cut instead of the stimulus bill, focused his rhetoric on long-term growth rather than short-term recovery, cut spending, and did a super-popular energy bill rather than the mildly unpopular health-care bill. The idea, of course, is that he and the Democrats would be in better political shape than they currently are.
Like any counterfactual, you could poke holes in this. But instead, let's grant it. Obama entered office in January of 2009, had a long conversation with Future Brooks, and adopted this plan. As Brooks doesn't mention cap-and-trade or a price on carbon, I'll assume this is an energy investment bill rather than a carbon-pricing bill. As Brooks doesn't argue that his plan would've reduced the unemployment rate relative to its current level (and as that would be a very difficult case to make), I'll assume the economy looks pretty much as it looks now.
Maybe, in that world, Brooks is right. Maybe Democrats would be facing a loss of 25 or 30 seats rather than 45 or 50. I could think of reasons that that's not true, but let's say, for the moment, that it is.
What Brooks seems to be offering is a trade: Do less stuff, hold more seats. Now, Brooks doesn't think the health-care bill was a good bill, but Obama does, and most Democrats do. I'm not really sure what Brooks thinks of the stimulus plan's long-term infrastructure investments, but Obama and his team thought they were extremely important to the economy's long-term growth prospects. A universal health-care bill and hundreds of billions in much-needed, long-term investments in exchange for 15 or 20 House seats? Well, what are supermajorities for, if not making that precise trade?
You could say, I guess, that Obama and his team could've gotten more done by doing less in years one and two and then holding Democratic seats so they could continue passing legislation in years three and four. But I'd look at that a bit differently: They spent years one and two working on the issue areas of interest to massive Democratic majorities, like health-care reform and infrastructure investment, and they'll spend years three and four working on things that are of more interest to divided government, like deficit reduction. That is to say, they got everything they could out of the Democratic supermajority, and now they'll actually be able to pivot to the center more easily, as Democrats won't be yelling at Obama to fulfill his campaign promises and do health-care reform.
The odd man out in all this is energy reform, but I'm of the perhaps-pessimistic opinion that a serious cap-and-trade bill never really had a chance. Either way, I'm much more inclined toward critiques of Obama that focus on what more he could have done over the past two years. Saying he could have done less and then he would've been criticized less may or may not be true, but I'm much more worried about failing the uninsured and failing the climate than about failing Democratic candidates running in the 2010 midterms.
Photo credit: By Pete Souza/White House
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