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Who's On First...again

Yesterday at the Center for American Progress, John Podesta spoke with SEIU President Andy Stern about his new book on The Power of Progress. I got the chance to ask them both about health care and the energy crisis. In his book, Podesta spends a lot of time on the latter, writing that “climate change, in my view, is the most demanding problem confronting America today.” I wondered if health care costs and the ballooning number of the uninsured wasn’t also pressing, and wanted to know—especially given Podesta’s former post running Bill Clinton’s White House—which might come first in a new administration.

We’ve gotten into this “who's on first” discussion in this space before; Podesta’s smart, if optimistic response was that “we can try to tackle them both simultaneously.” Podesta offered a fair defense of this assessment, noting that the economy is in dire straits and, compared to the Clinton years,

“The business community in general is in a somewhat more favorable position…. They see the need to tackle the health care problem—particularly those companies that are engaged in international competition. That’s different than it was in 1993. Congress largely deferred to private interests and private insurers. I don’t think that would happen in a new Congress.”

No doubt many heads in Barack Obama’s Michigan Avenue policy shop are remembering Clinton’s NAFTA/DOMA bobbles, and debating which enormous problem is smarter to go after first. As far as I can tell, team Obama has come down hard on the side of energy legislation. We’ve heard nary a word about health care in the general election campaign, though I daresay—and as Jon has written valiantly—it should be a winner for the Democratic side.

But, more importantly, the either/or may have to do with faulty Democratic messaging. Why haven't both issues been framed as a single thought? This should be a twofer—the accelerating costs of health care are a huge burden to, for example, automobile manufacturers, who have to pay legacy costs that international competitors in, say, Japan do not. So their reluctance to invest heavily in higher fuel efficiency or plug-in electric hybrid technology can be seen more as a desire to moderate market risk (and potential losses) than an active aversion to environmental concerns. And, as Joe Klein and CJR synthesize, John McCain is bad on both. Yet health care reform, small business growth, fuel scarcity and failing industry are all siloed in the public imagination.

Certainly, companies like Boeing and unions like the machinists, who all have a stake in comprehensive energy action, are on board for lowering the costs of health care. Obama and Rep. Jay Inslee (one of my favorites) have cosponsored stopgap “health care for hybrids” legislation that would “address the unique challenges of the U.S. auto industry” with a bailout for some health care overhead (more of a frame from Bracken Hendricks at CAP here). But the connection between these health care expenditures and the energy crunch has not really been made explicit in the mind of the public. This is probably why the Democrats have been losing the energy debate all summer long—and if Obama is lucky enough to have his 100 days to govern next winter, he should keep this in mind.

--Dayo Olopade