Joe Romm says “Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions.”
I’m sympathetic to this view. My main reason for voting for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, was the difference on Iraq. But an important secondary reason for me was that the leading health care wonks I knew—and especially Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn—kept disparaging Obama’s commitment to health care reform. Unlike Hillary Clinton, they told me, he didn’t seem that invested in this issue. He seemed to think it was perhaps of secondary importance and that climate and energy mattered more. Well that sounded to me like Obama had the right priorities! And I know it sounded correct to Nancy Pelosi as well.
But obviously what wound up happening was that the White House prioritized health care over energy and Pelosi certainly didn’t stand in the President’s way. Indeed, during the dark days of Scott Brown, the Speaker’s commitment to getting health care done was absolutely critical. So what happened? Well, I’m not certain and I’ll definitely be interested as more people cycle out of the White House to learn more from reporters and historians about how and why health care wound up “going first.” But my strong suspicion is that this isn’t so much a choice the president “made” as it was a choice that was forced on him by a larger set of forces. In other words, the political coalition behind health care reform simply had more clout inside the Democratic Party than did the coalition behind averting climate catastrophe, so health care wound up getting priority despite indications that the key leaders actually felt it was less important.
Most of all as I’ve said on a number of occasions I think the disparate regional impact of carbon pricing schemes means it’s impossible to make headway on this issue unless there’s a genuine desire on the part of a non-trivial number of Republicans to make headway on the issue. Insofar as Republicans prefer destroying the planet to bipartisan energy compromise, we’ll keep on destroying the planet. That’s a choice John McCain, Susan Collins, and others made not a choice Barack Obama made.