Perhaps, in about a week, House Speaker John Boehner, majority leader Eric Cantor, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Representative Paul Ryan and a handful of other top Republicans will gather at Tortilla Coast in Washington’s Logan Circle and decide on a new political strategy. It’s possible they’ll look at the country’s demographics and decide that they need to get immigration reform done ― and fast ― if they’re going to win the White House in 2016.
Perhaps they’ll realize it would be better to get Democratic cover for entitlement cuts now than to watch the next Republican president imperil his presidency by taking an ax to America’s most popular programs. Perhaps they’ll stop pretending that pretty much every climate scientist of any note is in on a conspiracy to convince people that global temperatures are rising ― yes, even amid a cold snap on the East Coast ― and conclude that future generations will judge them harshly if they don’t do something about climate change.
Perhaps. But probably not.
So President Barack Obama’s second term is not likely to be a thrilling rush of legislative accomplishment. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t change the country; in some ways, it might bring more actual change than his first term.
The news media prefer political fights to policy processes. Remember the yearlong, wall-to-wall coverage of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? Of course you do. Remember the wall-to-wall coverage of the regulatory and implementation decisions the administration made between 2010 and 2013? Of course you don’t. But that process mattered! It led to the disastrous Oct. 1 debut of Obamacare, among other things.
Obama’s first term was a period of unusual legislative intensity. In addition to health-care reform, there was the sprawling stimulus bill, the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation, the permanent extension of most of the George W. Bush tax cuts, Senator Edward Kennedy’s Serve America Act (reauthorizing and expanding Americorps) and much more. No recent president signed so much transformative domestic policy into law so quickly.
Signing a bill into law isn’t the end of transformation; it’s the beginning. Obama’s second term ― and his entire presidency ― will largely be defined by whether he makes good on the legislative projects begun in his first term. The good news for the Obama administration is that this isn’t, for the most part, a process that requires much input from Congress. The bad news is that it requires working through difficult challenges with a much more varied group of actors, including executive-branch agencies, state and city agencies, doctors, nurses, banks, regulators, faith groups, government contractors and even 19-year-olds deciding whether they want to pay for health insurance.
The federal government is currently overhauling three massive sectors of the U.S. economy: health care, finance and energy. The most far-reaching changes are under way in health care. Of late, enrollment in Obamacare has gotten most of the press. But most people aren’t enrolling in Obamacare.
They’re already insured. For them, the most significant change is the restructuring of the health-care delivery system to reward quality over volume, coordinated care over discrete services, and data-driven, evidence-based medicine over tradition and intuition. Ten years from now, a 63-year-old rushed to the hospital because of chest pains might be treated in a very different way ― and his doctors might be compensated in a very different way ― because of what happens over the next three years.
The financial sector, too, is undergoing an overhaul. The Dodd-Frank reforms are still being written, finalized and implemented. Regulators are still deciding how to interpret and implement the legislative language. The banks are still trying to wriggle out of new requirements. The agencies created or strengthened by the law ― principally the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ― are still learning how to use their newfound powers. (The CFPB is still getting used to having a newly confirmed director.)
Meanwhile, changes in the energy sector are largely the result not of new legislation but of the failure to pass any legislation at all. Obama entered office promising to pass a cap-and-trade bill that would price and limit carbon emissions. The effort failed completely.
The prospects of Congress passing any major climate-change legislation have, if anything, deteriorated since 2008. So the Obama administration is in the process of defining an executive backstop: The Environmental Protection Agency will regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants and other sources. The White House recently hired Democratic consigliere John Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Bill Clinton White House, in part to oversee that process.
All of this presents a challenge to those of us in the news business. Congress is a convenient institution to cover. There is a calendar. Much of the work happens in a single building. The process is (relatively) predictable. The key players are (generally) eager to talk.
Regulatory and administrative processes are much more difficult to cover. Obamacare, for instance, has 51 separate insurance exchanges, each with its own governing authority, risk pool and set of consumer options. Dodd-Frank changes federal regulation of financial products that most people don’t know exist. These “stories” don’t sort themselves into handy scorecards of accomplishments. But if you’re looking for change in Obama’s second term, this is where you’ll find it.
By Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. ― Ed.