Now or Never

Does the president have to get everything done this year?

Last month, Media Matters documented that CNN and other outlets repeatedly wondered if President Obama was addressing too many issues when he should be focusing solely on the economy. But in recent weeks, pundits have begun to claim that, if he wants the legislation to succeed, Obama has to work with Congress to pass health care and cap-and-trade laws and other reforms this year. Or else.

“The extent to which your administration succeeds or fails will depend, to a large extent, on what happens in the first year,” wrote Paul Krugman in Rolling Stone magazine.

“No matter how much is on the plate, the first year is the time to seize the moment and move on major change,” Norman Ornstein wrote in Roll Call.

And, on MSNBC, Chris Matthews got The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Newsweek’s Evan Thomas to agree that Obama must get health care passed this year.

Matthews: We have seen the models of Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, everybody we can think of, George W. Bush could only get done what they most wanted to get done in their first year. After that they were neuterized.

Thomas: A lot of vulnerable Democrats who swept in with him. They could go down the next election. He’s got to get it done now. ….

Matthews: Chris Cillizza, do you think the president has to go for it? My hunch is he does, based on history. You can’t get nothing done your second year. If he doesn’t deliver on health care, how is he going to hold the party together?

Cillizza: Chris, I agree with you. …

It’s an elections thing. After 2009, senators and representatives will go back to their districts and campaign for re-election. If Obama’s proposals for cap-and-trade or health care are introduced too close to the elections, senators and congressmen may be reluctant to take a big stand in support or opposition, if votes are on the line. Or they might be too busy campaigning in their home districts to actually spend time on, you know, legislating.

But even if the 2010 elections prove a temporary distraction, that still doesn’t mean that Obama has one shot to pass his legislation—especially given that statistics guru Nate Silver projects that the Democrats will remain in power. Invoking the broad brush of history, Matthews and others attempt to cite a precedent that all presidents, “everybody we can think of”, has only been able to achieve their foremost priorities during the first year. But history is more complicated. FDR, for instance, was equally, if not more, effective in his second and third years, passing the Second New Deal, which included the Works Progress Administration, the Social Security Act, and the precursor to the National Labor Relations Act. History, like statistics, can serve any thesis, and Obama’s presidency may follow in FDR’s footsteps, too—after all, both govern(ed) during huge economic crises that required sustained action.

In the meantime, one problem with this now-or-never meta-narrative is that it introduces yet another rubric by which to evaluate Obama’s presidency—and a particularly empty and fatalistic one, at that. When Krugman writes about Obama’s administration succeeding or failing, he’s writing about it succeeding or failing politically. The health reform legislation could pass, and people could still find themselves lacking adequate health care. Or, in the case of cap-and-trade, the government could adopt a controversial measure that may not sufficiently reduce emissions. But in the base Beltway arithmetic that equates victory in Washington with victory for Americans, the fact that the bills passed at all would be enough to count them as a success.

I’m not saying that journalists should forget D.C.’s political realities when writing about Obama’s legislative agenda. But they shouldn’t forget the public, either. While the president might be well served by fast legislation, the public is best served by good legislation—something that the do it now! pundits don’t seem to have considered. A successful presidency ought to be measured in terms of how its policies affect actual people. And to adjudicate that, a year is much too short.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.