Gonzales

How President Trump Can Avoid President Obama’s Biggest Mistake

Punting health care legislation to Congress defined Obama’s time in office

Donald Trump greets President Barack Obama moments before his swearing-in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump’s critics believe the new president is clueless (or worse), but he might be on track to avoid repeating former President Barack Obama’s biggest political mistake. 

Trump’s pre-inaugural press conference was widely panned, but his comments on the future of health care legislation were instructive.

“The easiest thing would be to let it implode in ’17 and believe me, we’d get pretty much whatever we wanted, but it would take a long time,” said Trump, flanked on one side by stacks of mysterious papers and folders. “We’re going to be submitting, as soon as our secretary’s approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan.”

“So as soon as our secretary is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan,” he added a little later.

The timetable is critical.

The biggest mistake of Obama’s presidency was punting health care “reform” to Congress. While he wanted to remain postpartisan after a historic campaign and stay out of the fight, Democrats on Capitol Hill argued over the specifics and took more than a year to get something to his desk.

As the legislation snowballed into its final form, one of Obama’s top advisers told congressional Democrats to avoid bed-wetting and “have the guts to govern.” Later in 2010, dozens of vulnerable Democratic members put their political careers on the line and voted for the polarizing Affordable Care Act, only to later feel pushed off a plank without a life preserver.

Democrats lost 63 House seats and the House majority, as well as six Senate seats. Many of those Democrats forced into retirement felt deserted by Obama and believed he should have hit the campaign trail to sell the legislation to the American people after it passed, instead of waiting until he was up for re-election.

The Affordable Care Act became a catalyst for Republican gains in the House, Senate, governorships and state legislatures for most of Obama’s tenure (2012 being the exception), and the Democratic Party seemed to bottom out with Trump’s presidential victory last year. The health care law also set the tone for a frosty relationship between the remaining Democrats on the Hill and the White House.

If Obama had been more assertive in the legislative process from the beginning and hit the campaign trail to highlight the benefits of Obamacare before the midterm elections, history may have been written differently. It wasn’t as if Obama was dedicating his time to improving his bowling game, considering he was dealing with the financial crisis. But I can’t find a Democratic strategist focused on congressional races who will defend how Obama and his team handled the Affordable Care Act and its aftermath.

Republicans agree that Obamacare should be repealed, but the party is far from a consensus on what replacement would look like and when it should take place. Some Republicans, including Trump, appear to believe replacement should be soon and simultaneous with repeal. Others believe repeal should happen sooner rather than later, but more time is needed to develop a replacement. They believe Americans understand that the issue is complicated and will be forgiving if changes aren’t immediate.

Republicans will have to get over any differences in strategy and tactics, but the Democrats’ past may serve as an example of what not to do. And the specific timeline for the GOP’s repeal plans is not completely clear.

Confirmation hearings for Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price to become secretary of Health & Human Services began before the inauguration. But his nomination may not come to a vote until next month (assuming allegations of insider trading don’t take him out of the running).

But even if it takes a few weeks or months, it seems unlikely Trump will tolerate navel-gazing by congressional Republicans about health care. The good news for the GOP is that it also appears Trump doesn’t want to be cooped up inside the White House. It’s easy to see him hitting the campaign trail, feeding off the crowds, before the potentially treacherous 2018 midterm elections.

Based on a favorable Senate map, filled with GOP takeover opportunities and few vulnerabilities, and favorable House maps in key states, Republicans should be able to avoid a midterm disaster if the party remains intact and engaged. But if Republicans are divided and apathetic, Democrats could be poised for a quick comeback.

Democrats would also benefit if the Republican replacement is a disaster and voters punish the GOP if they lose coverage or are dissatisfied and downright angry about the new alternative. And foreign affairs could keep Trump from focusing on his domestic priorities.

Of course, some Republicans say President Obama’s mistake was pushing the Affordable Care Act at all, just like most Democrats believe repealing it would be a disaster. But since Republicans are beyond the point-of-no-return on repealing it, they are better off ripping off the Band-aid quickly, and spending most of the next two years convincing voters it was the right thing to do.

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