As midterm elections approach, administrations invariably find their critics most irate -- and often find their friends least helpful. So it is today, as the Obama administration and the 111th Congress find not only conservative attack but a steady drone of complaints from the left. Columnist Eric Alterman, in a long Nation piece this month, is typical of the latter: The health bill lacks a public option, Congress hasn't passed a climate change bill or changed labor law, the political field is tilted, "the Obama administration has been a big disappointment," liberals should indulge themselves in a big pout.
We gently respond: Less of the complaining. In circumstances more difficult than those most presidents face, the Obama administration and Congress have built a remarkably good record. Eighteen months ago they inherited an economy in free fall, losing 700,000 jobs a month. They made correct and courageous decisions on financial system rescue and stimulus, which prevented a crisis from evolving into a 1930s-style disaster with no exit. And they followed up with a remarkable legislative record -- not in health alone but in education, trade adjustment, financial services reform, and more. Some examples:
- Health Care Reform: As DLC's CEO Bruce Reed said on its passage, the health reform bill is "based on shared responsibility that asks businesses, insurers, providers and individuals all to do their part to make health care more affordable, and our people and our economy healthier" and when fully implemented will provide coverage to 32 million presently uninsured people. Obviously much work lies ahead and implementation will need close attention. But even so, it is a monumental achievement, fulfilling a 60-year pledge for health reform.
- Children's Health Coverage: One of the first bills out of Congress, a large expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program to guarantee health care for an additional 4 million children -- or a total of 11 million -- from lower-middle class and poor families slightly above the Medicaid coverage line.
- Race to the Top -- A unique K-12 education funding pool for states with exceptional education-reform programs. Launched in the stimulus bill, and championed ever since by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and by Representative (and former Colorado Board of Education Chair) Jared Polis, it has spurred 48 states to commit to national standards in math and English education; sped creation of charter schools in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Tennessee; and encouraged more rigorous teacher evaluations using data on student performance. Delaware and Tennessee, winners of the first round of grants, have added especially ambitious new policies to reform chronically failing schools.
- Student Loan Reform: By eliminating middlemen and making loans directly, this spring's astonishingly little-noted student loan reform will save $68 billion for the government over the next 10 years, and -- for the freshman class of 2014 and the students who follow them -- will mean easier repayment terms and therefore more middle class opportunity for college.
- Trade Adjustment Assistance: Designed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and passed a year ago, the reauthorization of TAA -- the main source of support for trade-dislocated workers -- is the program's largest expansion and reform since John F. Kennedy created it in 1962. The new TAA nearly triples support for training and job-placement programs, makes services workers and more manufacturing workers eligible for TAA benefits, and increases the health-insurance subsidy for workers enrolled in TAA training from 65 percent to 80 percent of insurance costs.
- Financial Services Reform: Drawing lessons from the financial crisis and its antecedents in the property bubble and subprime mortgage crisis, the bill signed last Wednesday is the largest change in financial services policy in 15 years, adding a consumer bureau, giving regulators more capacity to avert the growth of banks into too-big-to-fail operations and offering the country a greater chance to avert future bubbles. It shouldn't be overstated -- no legislation will abolish the human desire to get rich quick, nor the potential for herd instincts to direct too much investment into single sectors -- but this is a good effort that leaves us a bit safer than we were before.
- Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission: Launched by Executive Order and with bipartisan commitment, the Commission will provide a policy foundation for a national response to the profound fiscal challenge now emerging from the rising cost of health care, the baby-boom retirements of the next 20 years, and the mismatch between revenue and obligations.
To this list we could add: a science and competitiveness act investing $31 billion in scientific research and math/science education; 2 million acres of wilderness designations; tobacco regulation; consumer protection for credit card users; a steadily progressing withdrawal from Iraq; an Iran sanctions bill that has pushed a reluctant U.N. Security Council to act; revival of pay-as-you-go budgeting rules; and more.
There's no doubt the country needs more. We would like to see energy and climate-change legislation that puts a price on carbon; redistricting reform that bans the gerrymander; easier high-skilled immigration; and more engagement on trade policy to get the export markets that will help revive private-sector-led growth and the job creation the country needs most.
But the record is already very strong. Not in 20 years* can we find a comparable legislative record. And they have done it while battling an inherited economic disaster worse than any in decades. Not an easy job, and their critics need to remember that. So, as the midterms approach: Less of the complaining, more of the helping.
* Since 1990-1994 -- two deficit-reduction bills, Clean Air Act Amendments, a national crime bill, trade liberalization and the Americans with Disability Act, and welfare reform added on in 1996.
A sample of complaints -
Eric Alterman in the Nation:
Paul Waldman in The American Prospect:
Some perspectives on the record -
Health Reform: Bruce Reed comments on health reform:
Race to the Top: The Department of Education's Race to the Top application site:
Delaware's successful Race to the Top application reshapes K-12 education:
Rep. Polis warns against weakening Race to the Top:
Student loans: The White House explains the implications of student loan reform for community college access:
And the DLC's Jessica Milano and Conor McKay, in the San Jose Mercury News last fall, on community colleges as keys to quality jobs:
And more -
HHS summarizes the State Children's Health Insurance Program revisions:
The Labor Department's TAA page:
House Blue Dogs on restoration of pay-as-you-go rules: