Top Democrat: Obamacare took eyes off the real problem of the economy

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), October 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), October 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C. MCT

Breaking ranks, one of the nation’s top Democrats said Tuesday that the party made a major political mistake when it pushed a health care overhaul instead of programs directly benefiting the middle class.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said the controversial push in 2009 and 2010 shifted the emphasis away from the pocketbook pain the broad middle class was still feeling from the Great Recession and toward changing a health care system most Americans liked.

He recalled how President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats quickly pushed through a huge economic stimulus shortly after the president took office in 2009.

“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should’ve continued to propose middle-class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus,” Schumer said in a speech at the National Press Club.

“But unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,” he said. “We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem: health care reform.”

Schumer offered a tough look at his party in the wake of its losses in the Nov. 4 midterm elections, when many Democrats lost seats to Republicans who appealed to lingering doubts or outright opposition to the health care law. He suggested the Democrats’ troubles had their roots in 2009, when people desperately wanted economic stability and help finding jobs.

“We were in the middle of a recession, people were hurting and said, ‘What about me? I’m losing my job. It’s not health care that bothers me,’” he said.

Schumer’s comments came a few weeks after a clip surfaced where Jonathan Gruber, an adviser who helped write the law, talked about how “the stupidity of the American voter” helped get it through Congress.

The White House said Tuesday that it welcomed dialogue with Schumer about the health care law.

“I saw that he talked about the need to have an emphasis on the middle class, and that is something that drives us and this president every single day,” said Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz. “If you want to have a conversation about the Affordable Care Act, we should, because we believe strongly the Affordable Care Act is working.”

Schumer is widely regarded as a top candidate to succeed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada as the Senate’s top Democrat. Reid will continue in that role next year as minority leader.

While Republicans lambaste the health care law as big government run amok, Schumer’s critique was political, and he argued for big government overall.

“When large forces, harnessed and encouraged by the private sector, push you around and you feel helpless, you need a large counterforce to stand up to, to stand up for you,” he said.

“People know in their hearts that when big powerful private sector forces degrade their lifestyle, only government can protect them,” he said.

Schumer also had harsh words for the 2009 economic stimulus, another of Obama’s signature initiatives, saying, “It was a mistake, frankly, for Democrats in Congress to make the breadth of the stimulus so wide that funding seemed to be going to any number of pet programs and not just things that would jump-start the economy.”

Schumer recalled 2008, when Democrats won the White House and controlled both chambers. That was “a broad mandate to use government to stop the free fall caused by the financial crisis and reverse the middle-class decline,” Schumer said.

The stimulus, though, “was not the bright spot for Democrats that it could have been for two reasons,” he said.

Since Republicans tried to block it, Democrats could not pass as big a package as some hoped.

“Therefore,” Schumer said, “while it certainly prevented things from getting worse, its positive effects didn’t really break through.”

Second was the scope of the stimulus. “It gave Republicans the opportunity to create the impression that the bill was loaded up with pork, which they used to frame the whole bill as a taxpayer-funded giveaway to special interests,” he said.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.