Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 | 2 a.m.
It was a week after President Barack Obama was elected that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
It’s because Obama failed to heed Emanuel that his administration has been a failure.
Obama failed to harness America’s greatest strength: its ability to pull together in a crisis. He compounded that error by putting his legislative priorities in the worst possible order.
To persuade Americans to each pull their oar in rowing the nation out of great danger, you must convince them they are in great danger. Obama endeavored to do the opposite.
Improvement was always just around the corner, or already here. There were no stirring calls to action or heartfelt pleas to come together. Why come together if everything was almost all right?
Obama should have painted the economy as devastated and our broader challenges as daunting. When Republicans screamed, “There are no jobs,” Obama should have bellowed, “Buster, you don’t know the half of it.” When the unemployment rate improved, he should have said, “That’s because people are so despondent they no longer apply, and besides, the new jobs are all bad gigs holding signs advertising ‘Going Out of Business’ sales. It’s a disaster.”
Obama was elected with a decent mandate, and his party controlled both houses of Congress. Had he convinced the nation we were in truly dire straits, he could have sold a package of nation-building that would have been stimulative and given us the improvements we need.
Instead, we got a halfhearted $800 billion in spending that kept a lot of government workers, cops and teachers on the job for a short time, instead of the much greater multiplying effect of a real construction stimulus, which also would have given us better roads and bridges. If people had believed we needed it, they’d have demanded it. That they didn’t goes to the lack of leadership.
Worse, though, was the fact that the president tried to pass a huge new entitlement, Obamacare, without fixing Social Security and Medicare.
He was like the owner of two failing restaurants saying: “I really think I need to open a third restaurant, then worry about the horrid money-sucking of the first two.” He needed to deal with the problems in the opposite order.
The Social Security fix is easy, a matter of raising the cap on contributions and bumping up the withholding percentages a couple of points. If Obama had started with that, he would have increased his power rather than destroying it.
Medicare is a harder fix. But if you can’t get Medicare costs under control, you can’t afford to expand government-subsidized health care. People sensed that, particularly because much of the funding for Obamacare was supposed to come from cutting reimbursements to doctors. That’s the same plan Congress passed to fix Medicare in 1997 and has voted to evade every year since. This kind of trickery is what turned the public against the president.
In 2008, some Republicans favored health care reform — and immigration reform, clean energy and emissions reductions. Obama’s highhandedness erased all that, and lost Democrats the House and sane Republicans their House seats.
Had he handled things differently, had he not wasted a serious crisis, and a special moment in our political history, he (and we) could have had it all.
That doesn’t mean John McCain would have done better, or that Mitt Romney would.
It simply means Obama could have done better, and the fact that he didn’t can best be described as failure.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.