Politics

Doctor Joe

Biden’s speech about the stimulus was really about health care.

Joe Biden. Click image to expand.
Vice President Joe Biden

Leading up to President Obama’s 100th day in office, the administration made fun of reporters for fussing over an artificial milestone. The 200th day of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, on the other hand, is important enough to merit a celebratory press release; four speeches by Cabinet secretaries across the country; a major address in Washington from Joe Biden; and, if we’re lucky, a commemorative Biden bobblehead doll handcrafted by American workers.

Why all the attention? Because the 200th day of the stimulus couldn’t have come at a better time. (The timing is so good, I counted the days just to make sure.) For one thing, the stimulus seems to be working. Earlier this summer, Biden said the stimulus had “saved or created”—that great, irrefutable phrase—150,000 jobs after 100 days and would save or create 600,000 more after 200 days. In his speech today, he cited private sector economists who estimate the stimulus has created or saved 500,000 to 750,000 jobs and boosted GDP growth in the second quarter by 2.2 percent.

More important, though, the stimulus commemoration dovetails with the administration’s attempted CPR on health care reform. So while Biden’s speech was nominally about the success of the stimulus package, it was also about health care—albeit from a perspective of about 10,000 feet.

In many respects the debate over health care has become a debate about the economy. Obama originally made his case for reform in terms of cost savings: Without reform, Medicare would go bankrupt in eight years and the deficit would keep trending upward. Meanwhile, the effect of health care reform on the national debt has become the opposition’s favorite talking point. At a Monday town hall, Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell argued that a public option would add to the deficit, exacerbating the current recession and burdening generations to come.

By making Americans less nervous about the economy, the administration hopes to make them less nervous about health care reform. To that end, one theme of Biden’s speech was straightforward: If you like what we’re doing with the economy, you’ll love what we’re planning for health care.

For example, the stimulus has been complex, he said, with thousands of projects in every state. Yet the government has been able to juggle them all! A major criticism of the stimulus was that the money didn’t get doled out fast enough and that the projects that did get funding would take too long. Well, not only are many projects finishing up early, said Biden, they’re finishing under budget. The government initially committed $1.1 billion for 300 airport projects. “We’re now going to finish those projects for $200 million less than the original estimates,” he said. (Never mind the fact that some economists say the whole point of the stimulus money is to spend it all.)

The stimulus has also been accountable, he said. Biden told the story about how if something goes wrong in the stimulus, he wants to know, so he can announce it. “To gain credibility,” he said, “we have to demonstrate and acknowledge when we screw up.” Trust plays into health care reform, too, as much of the opposition to a public option stems from a basic distrust of the government. Biden’s message: You can count on us.

But the similarities between the stimulus package and health care reform go deeper. As it turns out, the two policy goals are interlinked. In his speech today, Biden made sure to mention the economic benefits of electronic health records, to which the stimulus package allocated $19 billion. They will prevent redundancy, he argued, saving patients and taxpayers money. Plus, a major reason the stimulus has worked, Biden said, is because of “leverage.” Wind turbines, he said, don’t just create jobs; they generate power, save money, and wean the United States off foreign oil—all at the same time! Likewise, electronic health records will improve health care statistics, which produces better diagnoses, which makes Americans more healthy, which means they won’t have to visit the doctor as much, which saves money, and so on.

Underlying the stimulus anniversary, therefore, is an implicit bargain:Let us fix the health care system the way you let us fix the economy.

There’s a downside, though: This message downplays the urgency of health care reform. Panic is always a strong incentive. If the public is less concerned about its economic welfare, it may also think saving money through health care reform is less important. All this depends, of course, on whether people believe the administration when it says that health care reform will save money. Polls suggest they’re not convinced. Perhaps they’ll change their minds in another 100 days.