Washington — Far-reaching legislation aimed at reining in Wall Street marks the latest and likely the last major achievement by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, an 18-month partnership that strove simultaneously to fix a battered economy and enact sweeping changes to health care, education and more.
Whatever the longer term impact — the most far-reaching changes in the health care legislation won’t start until 2014 — the immediate aftermath is unemployment that scrapes double digits and deficits far deeper than Obama and his allies inherited in January 2009.
The Republicans who worked ceaselessly to thwart the president’s agenda are emboldened, while Democrats who voted it into law brace for majority-threatening election losses.
“Did they do the right thing for the public interest? I think so, but that depends on your values,” said James Thurber, professor and director of the Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies at American University. “You are elected, you get power, you govern and you change things the way you said you would.”
That doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded.
“They’re going to get punished for it,” Thurber said, in part because the economy has not responded strongly, but also because midterm elections are rarely kind to the party in control of the White House.
That’s the long view — the political pendulum swings — a perspective rarely if ever in fashion in Congress and certainly not in the run-up to an election. It also masks a perennial debate about the proper role of government in the economy, in health care, in the auto industry, in energy policy and other areas.
“If we had health care sooner, if we had energy sooner, if we had the education bill sooner, they were all three pillars of job creation, and that would have resulted in more jobs created by now,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference on Thursday. The 2009 economic stimulus legislation has created or saved 3.6 million jobs, she added, using an estimate that Republicans challenge.
“Without it, we would never have dug out of the deep recession that the Bush Administration had taken us in,” Pelosi said.
It was anything but an apology for the policies she, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others have pursued relentlessly, but something of a lament that the Senate can’t act as quickly as the House. Frustrated, House Democrats compiled a list of bills that they have cleared but still await action in the Senate. It runs to 345 items.
Not surprisingly, there are far fewer if-onlys at the moment among Republicans, politically ascendant after losing seats in two straight elections.
“In every case, the administration saw a crisis and used it to achieve some other long-desired goal of the left. And the crisis remained,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a speech a few hours before the financial regulation bill won final approval.
“The trillion dollar stimulus that promised to keep unemployment at 8 percent didn’t prevent 9.5 percent unemployment and a loss of nearly 3 million more American jobs,” he told the Young Republican Leadership Conference. “The new health care law, according to the administration’s own actuary, will bring us higher, not lower health care costs. The financial regulation bill doesn’t do a thing to reform the two institutions that played what may have been the leading role in creating the financial mess in the first place,” a reference to housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
McConnell, Boehner and nearly all fellow Republicans voted against that bill, as well as the other major measures that Obama, Pelosi and Reid pushed to passage: The
$787 billion economic stimulus bill; the $1 trillion health care measure designed to extend coverage to millions who now lack it; the more generous student loans made possible by stripping banks of their lucrative role as lending middlemen.
A separate measure, passed in 2009, expanded health care for children of lower and middle-income families.
With less than four months remaining until the elections and a lame-duck session of Congress likely this fall, Obama is on track to win confirmation for Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, his second pick in two years. An extension of unemployment benefits is all but certain. Democrats hope to overturn the Pentagon policy against homosexuals serving openly in the military.