Hirsh, 13 --- Chief correspondent (2/7/2013, Michael, “There’s No Such Thing as Political Capital; The idea of political capital—or mandates, or momentum—is so poorly defined that presidents and pundits often get it wrong,” http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/there-s-no-such-thing-as-political-capital-20130207))
THE REAL LIMITS ON POWER
Presidents are limited in what they can do by time and attention span, of course, just as much as they are by electoral balances in the House and Senate. But this, too, has nothing to do with political capital. Another well-worn meme of recent years was that Obama used up too much political capital passing the health care law in his first term. But the real problem was that the plan was unpopular, the economy was bad, and the president didn’t realize that the national mood (yes, again, the national mood) was at a tipping point against big-government intervention, with the tea-party revolt about to burst on the scene. For Americans in 2009 and 2010—haunted by too many rounds of layoffs, appalled by the Wall Street bailout, aghast at the amount of federal spending that never seemed to find its way into their pockets—government-imposed health care coverage was simply an intervention too far. So was the idea of another economic stimulus. Cue the tea party and what ensued: two titanic fights over the debt ceiling. Obama, like Bush, had settled on pushing an issue that was out of sync with the country’s mood.
Unlike Bush, Obama did ultimately get his idea passed. But the bigger political problem with health care reform was that itdistracted the government’s attention from other issues that people cared about more urgently, such as the need to jump-start the economy and financial reform. Various congressional staffers told me at the time that their bosses didn’t really have the time to understand how the Wall Street lobby was riddling the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation with loopholes. Health care wassucking all the oxygen out of the room, the aides said.
Issue selection is key --- he can only get momentum if he starts with an issue like immigration where the public mood is changing. Overreaching with an unpopular issue empirically triggers backlash.