I see that Paul Krugman, sometimes referred to affectionately in Left Blogostan as the Shrill One, also took on Edsall's piece in a blog post, Return of Focus Hocus Pocus 12/03/2014. He focuses on the argument, which Edsall picked up from Sen. Chuck Schumer, that Obama should have focused on helping the middle class during his first two years on office rather than on passing the healthcare reform. Edsall and Schumer apparently think those are two separate things. Which I guess if you define "middle class" as those who already had good health insurance they were satisfied with, then they would be separate.
Krugman jumps of the vagueness of the criticism, vagueness to the point of frivolity:
When people say that Obama should have “focused” on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done? Enacted a bigger stimulus? Maybe he could have done that at the very beginning, but that wouldn't have conflicted with the effort to pass health reform — and anyway, I don’t hear many of the “focus” types saying that. So what do they mean? Obama should have gone around squinting and saying “I’m focused on the economy”? What would that have done?And he refers to his New York Times column of 11/04/2010, The Focus Hocus-Pocus, in which he answered basically the same charge from Blue Dog Dem Evan Bayh. There, Krugman explains his own criticism, which was consistent with the real-time criticisms he was making the previous two years, of Obama's initial stimulus proposal:
Look, governing is not just theater. For sure the weakness of the recovery has hurt Democrats. But “focusing”, whatever that means, wouldn’t have delivered more job growth. What should Obama have done that he actually could have done in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition? And how, if at all, did health reform stand in the way of doing whatever it is you're saying he should have done?
Mr. Obama's problem wasn't lack of focus; it was lack of audacity. At the start of his administration he settled for an economic plan that was far too weak. He compounded this original sin both by pretending that everything was on track and by adopting the rhetoric of his enemies. ...But he didn't have much use for the lack-of-focus criticism then, either:
Could Mr. Obama actually have offered such a plan? He might not have been able to get a big plan through Congress, or at least not without using extraordinary political tactics. Still, he could have chosen to be bold — to make Plan A the passage of a truly adequate economic plan, with Plan B being to place blame for the economy’s troubles on Republicans if they succeeded in blocking such a plan. ...
Worse, there was no Plan B. By late 2009, it was already obvious that the worriers had been right, that the program was much too small. Mr. Obama could have gone to the nation and said, “My predecessor left the economy in even worse shape than we realized, and we need further action.” But he didn't. Instead, he and his officials continued to claim that their original plan was just right, damaging their credibility even further as the economy continued to fall short. [my emphasis]
The whole focus on “focus” is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice — a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.
After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying that he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? ...
So where, in this story, does “focus” come in? Lack of nerve? Yes. Lack of courage in one’s own convictions? Definitely. Lack of focus? No.
And why would failing to tackle health care have produced a better outcome? The focus people never explain.
Of course, there's a subtext to the whole line that health reform was a mistake: namely, that Democrats should stop acting like Democrats and go back to being Republicans-lite. Parse what people like Mr. Bayh are saying, and it amounts to demanding that Mr. Obama spend the next two years cringing and admitting that conservatives were right.