We have heard for months that the Democrats' election prospects would brighten once they pivot from health care to the economy. But that seems increasingly unlikely. The reason is simple: President Barack Obama overpromised on his stimulus package and then grossly underdelivered. That has caused public confidence in his ability to handle the economy to drop.
Of course, that hasn't stopped the administration from spinning. Take this past Sunday's media blitz in which White House advisers swarmed the morning talk programs. National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, for one, said on ABC's "This Week" that the most recent unemployment numbers are "hardly satisfactory," but nonetheless "good news" because job creation "is running somewhat ahead of what the administration was forecasting."
That doesn't square with what administration officials said last year. Pass the stimulus and unemployment would be at roughly 7.5% by now, they promised.
Instead, unemployment was frozen at 9.7% last month, where the Obama administration predicted last year it would be now if nothing were done. Joblessness has neatly followed the pattern of persistent high unemployment the Obama administration said would occur if Congress failed to pass the stimulus package.
Even with last month's 162,000 net new jobs created, the country is on pace to end the year more than five million jobs short of where Mr. Obama suggested the country would be with his stimulus.
The stimulus money also hasn't been spent on the time line the president promised when he signed the bill into law. Recovery.org reports that as of yesterday, less than 40% of the stimulus had been paid out.
Overpromising on the stimulus and then underdelivering has left many Americans skeptical about Mr. Obama's economic leadership. Gallup's latest poll, for example, shows that 61% of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy. That's up 22 points since about this time last year.
The administration's difficulties in defending the stimulus may be why the president challenged Republicans who want to repeal, replace and reform ObamaCare to "go for it." Mr. Obama seems to be wagering that Democrats will be better off in the midterm elections talking about health care than the economy. That, at least, has a chance of exciting the party's left-wing base. Focusing on the economy will likely depress turnout among independents and centrist Democrats.
But by big margins Obama-Care is unpopular and Americans distrust the administration's claims that its new entitlement program is affordable and "won't add a dime to the deficit," as Mr. Obama relentlessly repeated during its passage through Congress.
It won't only add a single dime to the deficit; it will add zillions of them. ObamaCare only appears to be affordable on paper because it includes 10 years worth of revenue from huge tax increases and gigantic Medicare cuts to pay for six years of spending. What's more, 82% of the $434 billion expansion of Medicaid and 84% of the $466 billion in subsidies for insurance companies are spent between 2016 and 2019, after Mr. Obama would leave office (even if he serves a second term).
Conditioned by their experience with Mr. Obama's extravagant claims for his stimulus, the voters most likely to turn out this fall could be inclined to disbelieve his promises on health care, too.
When voters consider that the true 10-year cost of ObamaCare—which can be determined by calculating its costs between 2017 and 2026—is $2.6 trillion, many will be fired up to vote against congressional Democrats.
There are dangers for Republicans, too, though considerably less than those of Democrats. The first is that the GOP must not allow itself to be portrayed as the party of the status quo on health care. Republicans must combine a relentless, fact-based criticism of ObamaCare with a background melody about the reforms and changes the GOP would make if it were to win control of Congress.
And on the economy, the GOP must be careful not to be seen as rooting for failure. Republicans should acknowledge the economy is slowly recovering, but then give credit to workers and small business owners rather than government.
The GOP's argument must be that the stimulus bill didn't hasten recovery, but delayed it. They need to use the president's own promises to make the case that no nation in history has spent its way to prosperity.
Each party faces challenges in the midterms. But the ones confronting Republicans barely register compared to those facing Democrats.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, April 7, 2010.