It’s easy to forget that healthcare reform has uncontroversially been an issue at the front of the public mind for a miserably long time.
The bitterness by conservatives towards Justice Roberts for upholding the president’s healthcare law is ought to be considered justified. Healthcare reform is about to make the “incumbent advantage” look marginal in the 2012 election, and it’s not because the provisions in the bill are popular or because the frustratingly hypocritical Governor Mitt Romney signed healthcare legislation in 2005 that would become the Obamacare blueprint.
No, healthcare reform will push Obama over the edge because it symbolizes something that Americans have wanted for a very, very long time: healthcare reform. And that’s not to say that Obamacare is particularly good reform. It offers no structural changes to the American healthcare system, and very little systemic changes, while forcing millions to buy private coverage without giving the public a government option. Yet, the substance of the bill isn’t really the point—at least for the 2012 election—and Democrats are catching a sense of this.
That’s why after the Supreme Court’s decision, Democratic strategists have been arguing strongly in favor of rhetorically supporting the bill. Via Anna Greenberg in a memo provided to the Huffington Post:
“Talk about the popular pieces of Obamacare and the effects of taking them away, and stress that Republicans have not released an alternative plan… I can tell you that even in the last cycle, in 2010, when health care was part of why we lost the House … if you tested the idea that your opponent would want to take away limiting the lifetime cap on benefits or the preexisting conditions provision, that was actually a pretty strong hit on the Republicans.”
So if Obamacare is so unpopular, then why would the public be so dissatisfied with the Republican’s failure to release an alternative plan? It’s easy to forget that healthcare reform has uncontroversially been an issue at the front of the public mind for a remarkably long time—such a long time, that the fact that healthcare reform in any shape or form took 20-30 years to pass in Congress says something about the prevailing conception of American democracy. In 2003, for example, Gallup reported that 83% of Americans believed that “healthcare costs” were an “extremely important” issue, with healthcare costs garnering a higher percentage than issues ranging from unemployment to social security and even taxes. This shot up to 88% in 2005, thus beating the likes of “gas prices” and even “the economy”.
Fast forward 4 years later, and one “finds 56% of Americans in favor and 33% opposed to Congress’ passing major healthcare reform legislation.” This is just prior to Democrats’ unveiling of the Affordable Care Act, and one should note that the public still named healthcare a primary issue to be addressed despite being in the midst of a deep recession.
Healthcare reform has been a public priority in spite of being ignored in Washington, and the fact that Obama made it a priority of his administration will pay dividends come election time. And the political secret that often gets buried by front-page New York Times stories about Mitt Romney’s haircut is that the public always responds well to things that are done that benefit the public. This is a political truism, and it’s why people like Hugo Chavez and Lula get elected; it’s not because the former called George Bush “the devil” and gives inspired, unabashedly nationalistic speeches. Chavez has repeatedly been elected because he has implemented programs in Venezuela that help the majority of Venezuelans, and the big surprise is that this policy (of doing popular things) is popular.
Barack Obama hasn’t adopted a policy of consistently supporting popular programs. That’s not the line he’s walking, rather, he’s at the center of the classic Democrat dilemma of marrying progressive principles to pragmatic corporatism. But his reconciliation within this dilemma did lead him to a healthcare bill that has “popular pieces”. That’s technically and symbolically more than the Republican platform can offer, and Obama will deservedly find a positive response from the populous when he’s seriously compared to Mitt Romney in November.