In early November 2009, as the fight over Obamacare threatened to stretch all the way to New Years, I discussed the battle with a well-connected Democratic strategist. He wanted health care to pass, but he was eager for President Obama to turn his attention to the issues Americans cared about most: the economy and federal spending. “As soon as health care reform is over, he needs to pivot hard to becoming a deficit and spending hawk and a jobs creator,” the strategist told me.
Of course, the health care fight didn't end quickly. Two days before Christmas, Politico reported that White House officials believed it would last until February — after which Obama would make a “very hard pivot” to the jobs issue.
But health care dragged on even longer; the bill didn't pass until March 21. Even then, with his No. 1 priority accomplished, Obama did not execute the long-awaited pivot and go full-tilt on the economy. In fact, at times it was hard to tell just what he was doing. “So has he already made the hard pivot to jobs, or are we still waiting for that to happen?” a reporter asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during that time.
Then came months during which Obama sometimes talked about the economy and sometimes talked about energy and sometimes about immigration and sometimes the Middle East and sometimes about other stuff. Watching the polls, Democrats squirmed, seeing their hopes for November grow dimmer and dimmer. Republicans looked on, bewildered.
“I don't get it,” GOP pollster David Winston told me at the time. “I don't understand what he is doing. He's not addressing the No. 1 issue that Americans want him to address.”
It's hard to overstate just how surprised Republicans have been by Obama's performance. In talking to GOP strategists over the past months, most said something like this: The American people don't expect Obama to perform miracles. They know he inherited a mess. They don't think the unemployment rate will magically fall to 4.5 percent. But they do expect the president to devote himself completely to the economy, and they want to see signs of progress by election day. By “progress,” they mean not just a good month but the clear sense that the economy is moving in the right direction.
Instead, they got policy potpourri and “Recovery Summer.”
Now, with unemployment stuck at 9.6 percent, it appears the waiting is over. On his 595th day in office, less than eight weeks before voters go to the polls, Obama is making that now-infamous pivot. In a flurry this week, he's proposing spending $50 billion on the nation's roads and railways. He's proposing a $100 billion research tax credit for businesses. He'll have more proposals in the days ahead.
White House officials insist these are serious policy initiatives that are not being put forth just so Obama can say he's doing something about the economy. But that leads to the question: If these are such great ideas, why wasn't the president pushing them earlier?
“They've had nearly two years to think about it, and they've come up with a Democrat caricature: tax and spend,” says one high-ranking GOP Hill aide.
But even if Obama's proposals were good policy, it's not just too late for them to have any significant economic effect by November. It's also too late for them to have any significant political benefit for Democrats. Large segments of the public believe Obama and his party focused on the wrong issue — health care — for too long in 2009 and 2010, and when they did pass a big economic measure, the $814 billion stimulus, they got it wrong. That will be a hard perception to change by Nov. 2.
“The die has been cast in many voters' minds,” says another Hill Republican deeply involved in the midterm effort. “People believe the stimulus was a failure. By trying to 'pivot,' Democrats can't all of a sudden hide from their signature jobs effort. After all, didn't we just have the recovery summer?”
The president and Democratic leaders will no doubt argue that the perception is wrong, that they have in fact spent nearly every day focusing on the economy and jobs for the American people. They can say that all they want, but they can't change what they've done for the last two years.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.