That economy-second strategy worked in Obama's first term, at least if the definition of “worked” is that the president was able to put the economy behind other priorities and still win re-election. In “The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery,” the liberal journalist Noam Scheiber interviewed former top White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, who said Obama undoubtedly put health care reform ahead of fixing the economy.“I always admired the president's courage for recognizing that 50 years from now, people would remember that all Americans had health care,” Summers told Scheiber. “And even if pursuing health care affected the pace of the recovery, which was unlikely in my view, people wouldn't remember how fast the recovery from this recession was.”
Scheiber himself attributed Obama's health care-before-the-economy position to the president's “strain of messianism.”“Obama really was more focused on long-term, historically significant accomplishments than marginal, near-term differences in the pace of the recovery,” Scheiber wrote this year. “On some level, Obama was prepared to accept (and I'm making up these numbers for argument's sake) three years of painfully high unemployment with health care reform rather than 30 months of painfully high unemployment without it. And the reason is the one Summers alluded to (before disputing): Health care was simply more historically important than avoiding those extra six months of pain.”
For millions of Americans, however, that pain is still going on. Even if the national conversation has moved on to other issues, unemployment is still 7.7 percent, and it is only that low because many Americans have given up looking for a job. In November, the federal government's measure of those unemployed who are looking for work, plus those who want to work but have lost hope, was 14.4 percent.
But Obamacare is a reality. And the newly re-elected Obama still has that “strain of messianism.” In the second term, legalizing millions of illegal immigrants will be a “more historically important” accomplishment for Obama than the prosaic task of improving economic conditions for suffering Americans. So that's what he's going to do.