Overreach: nobody’s immune to it. Republicans overreached in the debt ceiling fight. Now, by some reports, President Obama is tempted to do the same.
Those reports state that Obama intends to proceed from the debt battle to the immigration issue, taking up again his plan to regularize the status of millions of people illegally present in the United States. Let’s leave aside for the moment the policy merits of the president’s immigration proposals. (I think they’re dreadful, but your mileage may vary.) Consider instead the politics of advancing this measure in a polarized Congress and a recession-battered country.
Why is the debate over the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—so bitter? Yes, it’s a big and expensive new entitlement. But so was Medicare Part D back in 2004, and that program provoked nothing like the controversy of the ACA.
Liberals and Democrats often suggest that racial politics inform the ACA debate. ACA is not only a big and expensive new entitlement. It’s an entitlement that disproportionately benefits immigrants and people of color: 27 percent of the uninsured are foreign-born. Meanwhile, ACA is financed in ways that disproportionately burden the wealthier and the native-born: through taxes on high earners and through cutbacks in Medicare, a program whose beneficiaries are more than 80 percent native-born white.
That suggestion by liberals and Democrats is hurled polemically. They ought to consider it analytically.
The two most popular programs in the United States are Medicare and Social Security. Look at what they have in common:
1) They do not look redistributionist. All contribute something; all receive something.
2) They were launched in years of rapid economic growth: 1965 for Medicare and 1935 for Social Security. (By later estimates, the U.S. economy grew at a Chinese-like 9 percent in 1935. The unemployment rate dropped 8 points in that single year.)
3) They were launched at times when the U.S. population was evolving toward greater homogeneity. Large-scale immigration had been halted a decade before Social Security; in 1965, the foreign-born portion of the population was dwindling to the lowest point ever recorded in U.S. history.
ACA did not meet those conditions. It may be highly exaggerated for Tea Party types to think, “Obama is taxing me to give health care to immigrants I didn’t want in this country in the first place.” It’s not, however, entirely inaccurate.
It was already true even before the financial crisis of 2008 that the pace of demographic change in the United States was outpacing many conservative voters’ tolerance. Since then, two things have happened. First, Americans have come to feel much less economically secure. Second, the baby boomers have begun to retire, intensifying already intense anxieties about the sustainability of Social Security and Medicare. To add on top of that a costly new program that appears to compete with those older programs for the benefit of a different population…that’s asking for trouble.
The deed is now done, and—as House Republicans just painfully rediscovered—done beyond undoing. The political task ahead is to minimize the deed’s negative consequences: economic, fiscal, political, and social. Instead, the Obama administration seems intent on maximizing such negative consequences. “You know that demographic change that’s making you so hostile to new social welfare programs? Let’s have a lot more of it! And faster!”
That’s folly—the kind of folly that rends nations and weakens governments. Back in 2008, Barack Obama promised “change.” He delivered. If he wants to protect and preserve his accomplishment, he’ll understand that even change has its limits, and that change becomes most secure when administered in tolerable doses. Obama's immigration reform atop health-care reform is one change too many. Leave the next chapter to the next president.