Many Republicans have accused Barack Obama of ignoring the economy. That's not true. The problem with Obama is not that he has ignored the economy, but that it was never his top priority in his first term as president, even as millions of Americans suffered the consequences of a devastating economic downturn.
Now, with many still struggling, we know the economy won't be Obama's top concern in his second term, either. On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, when the president was asked to name his top priority for the next four years, he first listed immigration reform. “That's something we should get done,” Obama said.
The economy came after that, as the president continued: “The second thing that we've got to do is to stabilize the economy and make sure it's growing.”
Obama's third priority for his new term is to manage the explosion in U.S. energy production “in a way that also deals with some of the environmental challenges that we have.” Given that the energy revolution -- fracking and the discovery of huge new sources of gas and oil -- is a key driver of economic growth, Obama's third priority is, in effect, to put the brakes on his second priority.
During Obama's first term, when economic conditions bordered on desperate, Republicans often criticized him for putting the economy behind other concerns, most notably national health care. Indeed, the president and Democrats sometimes conceded the criticism when they talked about making a “pivot” to the issue of jobs and the economy from whatever policy pursuit Obama felt was more important at the time.
When the time came to run for re-election, Obama finally started talking about the economy -- a lot. He talked about it, and why his economic plan was superior to Mitt Romney's, so much that audiences might well have come away with the impression that economic recovery was the president's top second-term priority. Turns out they would have been wrong.
At the same time, even though Obama has long said he wants to pursue immigration reform, he didn't talk about it much in his standard stump speech. In fact, in the speech he used in the final days of the campaign, Obama didn't talk about immigration reform at all, unless one counts his accusation that Republicans want to “turn back the clock 50 years for women, and for immigrants, and for gays.”
But now, it's immigration reform first, the economy second.
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.