Rather than focus on doing what the voters elected them to do, they instead focused on a longstanding ideological goal of the party elite. On the other hand, if [...] Obama had focused on restoring the economy - just as Franklin Roosevelt did in the historic 73rd Congress of 1933-34 - they might still be set for losses, but I think they would have been greatly mitigated, as at least they could claim they did everything that could be done to restore the economy to health. Similarly, if FDR had decided to pursue the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Social Security Act rather than stabilizing the economy during the First New Deal, I think the Democrats would have suffered serious losses in the 1934 midterm. Instead, FDR wisely saved those sorts of reforms for later years.
That’s all very well and good, except for two things. First, the big difference between FDR 1934 and BHO 2010 isn’t whether they focused on the economy -- it’s how successful they were. If the economy was growing at a rapid pace now, as it was during Roosevelt’s first two years, then GOP attacks on Obama’s main economic actions (the stimulus, the auto bailout, the rest of administering TARP) would be entirely ineffective. Now, there are lots of reasons why the economy grew more in 1933-1934 than it did over the last two years, only some of which have anything to do with actual policies of the president. But I think it’s impossible to make a case that Obama ignored the economy.
Yes, Cost might say, but health care distracted from Obama’s message or image of focusing on the economy, while FDR was smart enough to ignore distracting party issues. But that’s not true! In fact, what the Democrats did as soon as the took office was to launch a major campaign on a social issue that had nothing to do with the economy at all but everything to do with pleasing their urban constituencies. That’s right, one of the very first bills that Roosevelt signed, just days into his presidency, was the repeal of prohibition (in legislative form; passing the 21st Amendment took longer the rest of the year, and of course didn’t require presidential action, but was still a case of the Democratic Party focusing on fulfilling a non-economic plank in their party platform. Oh, and if that’s not good enough...guess what else the 73rd Congress did? How about: gun control!
Of course, repeal of prohibition was presumably a lot more popular than health care reform (I have no idea how popular machine gun regulation may have been) -- but the ACA would, I believe, be a lot more popular if the economy was growing and Obama was generally more popular. Cost’s continuing theme has been that the unpopularity of health care reform is hurting Obama and the Democrats, but as I’ve said I think the evidence is stronger that it’s the other way around.
More broadly...as Nyhan’s tweet said a lot more concisely than I’m capable of, presidents try to enact their party’s platform. They have to. Ignoring party priorities is a sure road to disaster for any president. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they never disagree with their party -- see Obama on civil liberties issues -- or that they’re always successful in implementing party plans, as Obama has been unsuccessful on climate/energy so far. Had Obama, however, said in January 2009 that he was going to put off health care and climate, he would have immediately faced a serious revolt from his own party, and might not have even managed to get anything passed through Congress -- and he’d probably now be looking at one or more liberal Senators or governors starting to think that Iowa and New Hampshire are great states to get to know better. Or, even worse, if he had abandoned health care reform after the August Crazy of 2009 despite having the votes in Congress to pass it, he would have severely injured his reputation, with all sorts of costs down the road. Presidents do have some ability to manage the party agenda. If Obama had chosen to emphasize climate instead of health care, Democrats would have gone along...although there’s a good chance that neither would have passed, which certainly wouldn’t have helped keep rank-and-file Dems happy going into the midterm elections. To fully reject action on Democratic priorities despite the largest Congressional majorities in a generation? No president would do that, and no president could do that and retain support of his party.