As a result, Obama and Democratic House leaders needed the vote of every Democratic House member to pass the health bill. He got his bill, but 63 House Democrats lost their seats in the midterm elections, including many moderates. They were mainly replaced by Republican Tea Partiers, guaranteeing the angry congressional polarization since.
Obama’s 2012 reelection is little comfort for Democrats. His total vote was smaller than in 2008, and it did not constitute a mandate for any particular agenda. It instead depended on two things: first, an unprecedentedly skillful identification and mobilization of key Obama voter groups that had grown in importance over the previous four years; and second, highly effective scare campaigns designed to convince those groups that Mitt Romney and Republicans were heartless plutocrats, servants of wealth, and enemies of women, Latinos, African Americans, and the middle class.
That approach is unlikely to work for another Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Republicans, for one thing, are unlikely to nominate someone as short on political gut instincts as Romney. And some voter groups are unlikely, four years from now, to be so easily motivated. Immigration reform, for instance, might remove a crucial barrier to socially conservative Latino voters moving to a Republican Party whose family, religious, and social values are like their own. Most of all, voters will still be searching for the reductions in political toxicity that Obama pledged in 2008 to produce.
Democrats need to return to the mindset of their most skillful prior leaders. Those leaders, from the New Deal onward, always began by asking: What are our country's most pressing needs? Then, what are our proposals to meet those needs? Finally, how can we mobilize majorities in the country and Congress to enact those proposals?
Comprehensive healthcare reform was a worthy priority for the administration. It was undertaken, however, at a time when the country remained financially and economically unstable—and when people of all outlooks were wary about an ambitious remake of a huge part of the economy. Unlike Medicare, Medicaid, or the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, it was formulated and narrowly passed on a one-party basis without public opinion supporting it. If he were to do it over, Obama would no doubt take the Lyndon Johnson/Ted Kennedy approach to healthcare reform and enlist a few Republican leaders and ideas, such as tort reform or selling insurance across state lines.
That mindset does not focus on one-upping Republicans in the next news cycle or gaining an edge for the next election. It focuses on serious governance.
Environmental, cultural, social, and other issues have moved forward on the national agenda since FDR and LBJ laid down New Deal and Great Society policy frameworks for the country. But the Big Two issues—the economy and national security—remain the Big Two, and remain to be addressed.