I was not alone yesterday in thinking that Obama should push for some progress on health care reform immediately, but the sentiment wasn't universal. Here (via Mark Thoma) is what some of his advisers are saying:
"It would be very difficult to come in and say, 'That agenda I've been pursuing for a year and a half? Never mind it,' " Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute said during an interview with The Times last week.
But Bernstein, a key Obama economic advisor, acknowledged that some economic issues may have to be addressed with greater urgency to provide a foundation for others.
"We can't tackle healthcare until we get the economy working," he said. "If the economy is weak, how can you make good on the promises you made?"
I don't see why that's true. Suppose we already had a program like the one I described yesterday. If the economy went into the tank, would that be the program we would drop? Of course not. We would say that achieving universal coverage is an important objective -- more important than something else we'll stop doing. So why does the fact that Obama's predecessor in office didn't think it was an important objective have to affect what Obama does? That's what elections are for, right? (And, Jared, when a right-winger who voted for McCain is on your left flank, you need to reposition yourself, no?)
I would characterize that position as neutral about whether spending on health care is a good way to "stimulate" the economy. Let me just put down a marker to say that the word "stimulate" should not be construed to mean "buy stuff you don't need just for the sake of spending money." It should be construed to mean, "accelerate the purchases of stuff you do need." If Obama believes that universal coverage is something we need, then spending money on it qualifies as stimulus.
Here is Dean Baker (again via Mark Thoma) making the case that spending money on health care is in fact one of the better ways to provide economic stimulus. You can see the similarity in the way we are approaching the problem in this excerpt:
The common thread is that neither one of us wants to see the government waste the taxpayers' money. I'm sure Dean and I would differ on what to do with the savings, but that doesn't change the imperative to use the money wisely.
Extending healthcare coverage in this way is effectively eating dessert before dinner, but this is exactly what we want to do to counter the recession. It is important that we spend money now to boost the economy. We will be getting double-value if this stimulus can be spent usefully toward meeting a longstanding goal, like providing national healthcare insurance, rather than just buying things at the mall.