President Obama started his term by passing a politically toxic stimulus bill. Next, he oversaw a politically toxic auto bailout. He then spent an agonizing year on a politically toxic health reform bill. His approval ratings dropped, the Tea Party erupted, and as he continued to do controversial things—on gay rights, on immigration, on Iraq—pundits continued to accuse him of political malpractice.
Well, he won anyway. And there’s a lesson there.
The lesson is: DO STUFF!
It is no secret that I think Obama had a tremendously productive first term; the subtitle of my book was “The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.” But this is a lesson for Republicans, too. Most politicians spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy fretting about the political consequences of their policies, which is understandable, because politicians who don’t get reelected become ex-politicians. But in the end, your reelection might come down to a waiter with an iPhone at a Florida fundraiser, or your opponent’s silly comment about “self-deportation.” So you might as well do what you think is right while you’ve got the power to do it. When you finally get the keys to the government car, drive it.
Obama is a politician, but he really did make it a point of pride that his administration would focus on getting the policy right and letting the political chips fall where they may. Sometimes that turned out to be dumb. For example, his stimulus cut taxes for 95% of Americans, but less than 10% of them noticed it, because his economists recommended giving them a few dollars a week through reduced withholding instead of writing them fat checks as President Bush had done. His chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel, complained that the president was denying himself an “Ed McMahon moment,” the squeal of Publishers Clearinghouse pleasure that would accompany a check from Obama, and he was right.
For the most part, though, Obama’s focus on policy led to a lot of policy change. His $800 billion stimulus became a national joke, but it launched a quiet clean energy revolution, dragged our medical system into the digital age, launched the most ambitious education reforms in decades, and saved the country from a depression. The political smart set warned that Obama was committing political suicide by focusing on health care instead of jobs and letting his reforms languish in Congress for months. But he plowed ahead, and achieved the longstanding Democratic dream of near universal health insurance.
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The original rap on Obama was that he was a words guy, but he turned out to be a deeds guy, better at achieving than marketing his achievements. He’s done a lot, from Wall Street reform to student loan reform to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and quite a bit of it was politically risky. He took more political risks in Afghanistan and Libya and the fight against al Qaeda. He criticized that white cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, regulated coal plants in swing states, and dropped his opposition to gay marriage. And what were the consequences? A 50% approval rating in a 50-50 nation, even though unemployment remained high throughout his term. Would he would have been any more popular if he had punted on health reform, as so many pundits advised?
There’s no way to know for sure. But one thing is sure: if he had punted on health reform, tens of millions of Americans would remain uninsured. Instead, he did stuff. And now he’ll have a chance to do more stuff.