In 2004, after being re-elected by 51 percent, then-President George W. Bush remarked "I earned capital in the political campaign and I intend to spend it." If President Bush could say he earned capital in his re-election, it is fair to say President Obama had a great deal more capital in his first term than his predecessor. Though he only won 53 percent of the vote, his approval rating coming into office was in the high 70s. While his immediate concern was passing an economic stimulus project, his true priority was passing comprehensive healthcare reform, which was evident even in his 2007 announcement of his candidacy. As a result, the President's approval rating nosedived, gave impetus to the rise of the Tea Party, and became the subject of scorn for many in his political base.
Now in the wake of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Obama appears to be enjoying some political vindication. In a statement prepared after the decision, President Obama remarked "it should be pretty clear that I didn't do this because it was easy politics. I did it because it's good for the country." While this statement may allow the President to gain some sense of moral superiority, given his open disdain for playing beltway politics, it does raise the question of what he could have conducted the healthcare fight that would have been "good politics.
When he came into office, the United States Economy had just witnessed the collapse of the financial system, which led to the bailouts of Wall Street and the Auto industry. As a result there was a public outpouring of outrage against what many people felt was the reckless practices of bankers. Had the President's first major fight been for Wall Street reform, it is very possible he could have used the populist sentiment to bolster any kind of regulations he could have wished for. Moreover, when he was met with opposition from Republicans, he could have rebutted that it was they who were siding with the financial institutions that there was antipathy towards. With popular opinion on his side, it is very possible that the President could have gotten the rules for banks that he truly wanted with a robust Volcker Rule, as opposed to the anemic version that has been rejected by Sheila Bair and even its namesake.
With this victory in hand, the President would have had the wind at his back, giving him a boost that would allow him to come into the healthcare fight from a position of strength and would have possibly allowed him to keep the Public Option. Yet, by primarily focusing on healthcare reform and not on what many felt was the cause of the economic crisis, the populace was left scrambling to understand why he was not putting laser focus on the banking industry. In turn, with the Tea Party storming town halls and with Republicans in Congress obstinately refusing to negotiate, the President wound up squandering his entire first year in exchange for a piecemeal bill that wound up looking quite similar to the health reform bill passed in Massachusetts by his now-opponent, Governor Mitt Romney.
President Obama has always appeared to pride himself in not "stooping" to the levels of his political opponents and doing the politically convenient thing. However, it is fair to say that had the President gone with public opinion and done the expedient thing of focusing on Wall Street Reform, he could have also done the inconvenient fight for healthcare and in turn, gotten true strong reform, with true change the public could believe in.