Economic conditions will heavily influence the campaigns and outcome of next year’s presidential election. However, even the most blinkered followers of Homo economicus know that rational economic arguments cannot long hold people’s imagination, crowd out other issues, or counter the big one—who looks like the right one to lead.
(Otherwise, Canada’s Bob Stanfield would have beaten Pierre Trudeau, Jimmy Carter would have won a second, and Bill Clinton’s eye-popping insight that “It’s the economy, stupid” would just be rattling around safely in Arkansas.)
Kevin Drum goes one step further and dares to argue that Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could be the election issue:
“That's really what the 2012 election is about. All the shouting aside, neither party is going to end up doing anything very different about the economy. Nor is there really all that big a difference between the parties on foreign policy these days. No, the single biggest accomplishment of the past decade has been the passage of Obamacare, and the single biggest difference between the parties going forward is whether or not it gets repealed, ending health care reform for another decade or two. In the end, that might not be enough to get the liberal base fired up, but it should be.
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Other than winding down his predecessor’s wars and climbing out of his predecessor’s recession, health is Obama’s defining project. If Obama wins and universal health care survives, he will be judged as a great president, rather than a gracious black footnote.
The economy is the issue, the steadiest strategists say, because it’s bad. As important, the politicians think they know what to say about it, how to be angry or sell good times in 10- to 30-second commercials.
Pollsters ask and the people reply: it’s Obama and Bush’s fault. Mitt Romney once ran a profitable business and, so, he feels that he’s free to claim he knows how a president can create jobs. Yet, there’s more superstition than substance behind these arguments. Democrats and Republicans today are both sloppy Keynesians, and neither can make tax reform politically sexy without pandering to extremes. The presidents who presided over periods of exceptional economic growth had no business experience. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and both Roosevelts were exclusively public men.
Health reform is complicated, but so is economics. Furthermore, a bad healthcare system, like a bad economy, gets people’s attention.
The choice between making universal health care work verses relieving the federal government of any responsibility for fixing the problem is as significant, as straightforward, and as truly presidential as anything the contestants will say about economic recovery.
If, by next summer, the Supreme Court rules that Obama’s ACA does have authority to compel Americans to participate in a universal health insurance scheme and Romney wins the Republican nomination, it’s quite possible that healthcare will be a decisive issue.
The Republican must make sense of being for universal compulsory health care for Massachusetts, but not for America; the Democrat must argue that another nation-wide entitlement can work as well as the others—and can be paid for.