Several days ago, a survey by the Associated Press in Time Magazine found support for President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, at 26 percent (its lowest in its four-year lifetime). The national media howled, including this excerpt from a Fox News article:
“President Obama is struggling to stop the steady slide in public support for his health care law, as yet another poll shows public approval of the law — and his job performance — hitting a new low.”
Fox has already eaten their words when the ACA was ruled constitutional, but this time it’s even more delicious. Reading a little deeper into the poll’s subtext could have predicted what was coming next. First, just 13 percent wrote that they thought the law would be repealed. Second, 56 percent said frustrations stemmed from problems with the website for them or a member of their family. As the deadline to sign up for insurance without a penalty passed, something remarkable happened: The website held up, and people’s opinions on the law seemed to change faster than the underwear they were wearing during the last poll.
By the deadline’s arrival, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that for the first time in 20 polls, more Americans supported the ACA than opposed it, if only by a slim margin of 49 percent, compared to 48 percent who were opposed.
The wild swings in polling demonstrate two things. First, problems such as the website’s rollout have a huge impact on temporary popularity of a law, but the law critics will have to rely on attacking more fundamental tenets of the law if they want to have any hope of repealing or modifying it. Second, the Republican Party’s over-reliance on criticizing the ACA will hurt their potential in the 2014 midterm elections.
Speaking in the Rose Garden Tuesday, President Obama reported that over 7.1 million Americans have signed up for healthcare since the rollout of the insurance exchange last October. This is significant because despite the glitches with the website, the number beats both the White House’s initial projection by 100,000 and the Congressional Budget Office’s projection by a million.
As long as President Obama is able to announce numbers like this, the law doesn’t stand a chance of being repealed. Arguments that seek to explain if and when health insurance costs will go up because of the law aren’t persuasive until such dire predictions come true, and solutions that call for a rewrite of the law with nothing but the statements of insurance companies to back them up can’t sustain momentum given the volatile poll numbers cited above.
The problem is also that those solutions aren’t politically feasible — thumping American swing voters over the head with healthcare economics might win Nobel Prizes, but it does not win elections. Shocking as it may seem, the vast majority of Americans have never read Nobel Prize-winning research.
Regarding the upcoming elections, it would be difficult to dispute the fact that Republicans will make gains in both the House and the Senate — structural political factors (more Congressmen are up for reelection in districts that President Obama lost in 2012 than in districts he won, for example) have already determined that. But a dependence on criticizing the ACA could be problematic, especially considering the two points of attack with the most political salience.
The first is an argument that has yet to be proven. Because the law relies upon younger, healthier Americans enrolling (to balance the cost to companies of insuring more unhealthy people), if a significant amount of “young invincibles” don’t sign up, healthcare costs will rise. Only time will tell if this happens, but it’s a risky bet — if the statistic goes the other way, President Obama will get to crow in the Rose Garden again, and that won’t be good for the GOP.
The second is a report by the Congressional Budget Office, which was released at the beginning of 2014 and sought to explain that the ACA would cost the United States over two million jobs. As I wrote then, that report is misleading because it estimated Americans would work less hours, not lose their jobs. Consider now this quote from Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of CBO, which appeared in the Washington Post, “At some level you have to take your hat off and say congratulations,” said Holtz-Eakin. “It’s an interim accomplishment at best.”
The worst part is, the GOP should already know this. Remember Mitt Romney? He certainly remembers. In his first interview after losing the presidential election, he said this, “I think the Obamacare attractiveness and feature was something we underestimated, particularly among lower incomes.”
The GOP should be careful not to let history repeat itself. If they do, they could have two more years in the minority to think about it.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Thursdays.