Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It

In 2009, Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it. They pushed through a stimulus package that barely offset the cuts in government spending at the state and municipal level, providing line-item veto power to a small rump of centrist Republican senators in exchange for bipartisan “cover.” And most of the rest of their “political capital” was spent on a Republican health care plan that the Republicans immediately demonized them for. Obama was determined that it be “deficit-neutral” over a ten-year period, and the conditions of its passage (using the reconciliation process, which was only necessary because of the Democratic majority’s foolish refusal to abolish the fillibuster) absolutely necessitated it.

This meant that most of its provisions wouldn’t even go into effect until four years later, so that the Democrats literally could not point to a single concrete benefit to a law that sounded… pretty bad. Yes, the Republicans exaggerated, as is their habit, but this was hyperbole that centered on an unavoidable truth about Obamacare: Americans would be forced by the government to give their money to some of the most hated and distrusted corporations on earth, whose continued profitability is taken as axiomatic under the terms of the health care reform law. Obamacare does a lot of good things other than that, and the insurance mandate has in fact decreased the number of uninsured — but the central premise of the law is one that is deeply offensive.

Obviously, there would have been a right-wing backlash against the first black president regardless of what he did. The Democrats were bound to lose ground in 2010 no matter what. But I think there can be no question that fear of Obamacare materially increased the swing to the right. And that’s because it gave Republicans a talking point that wasn’t obviously bullshit. They could make up stories about the corruption of the stimulus, or all the people who were undeservedly bailed out of their mortgages, or whatever, and the Democrats could always point out that those accusations are untrue or exaggerated. But they couldn’t deny that they had just passed a law that mandated every American who didn’t qualify for Medicaid to purchase (or have purchased for them by their employer) a private health insurance plan.

Handing that kind of red meat to the Republicans, which hits Americans right in the gut, in an area where they have a lot of justified fear and anxiety, was a huge unforced error. It led to a wasted presidency. Worse, it led to a huge amount of suffering at the state level, where Tea Party governors have destroyed everything they’ve touched. It has led to a baked-in advantage for the Republicans at every level of government other than the Electoral College, because the Democrats gave away the store during a fucking redistricting year. At the federal level, it has led to chaos and stagnation — creating a situation where the nation has narrowly avoided a gratuitous self-inflicted financial crisis due to the Republican weaponization of the debt ceiling (and Obama’s ridiculously irresponsible belief that he could “pivot” the default threat into a “grand bargain” on the deficit).

Obamacare did a lot of good things apart from the insurance mandate, and the mandate has reduced the number of uninsured and created circumstances where people with a pre-existing condition are no longer shut out of the individual insurance market. Those are good things, and I speak from a place of privilege as someone who does not have serious health problems or preexisting conditions.

But was it worth it? Was it worth a wasted presidency? Was it worth letting the Republicans run wild at the state level? Was it worth foreclosing the possibility of any significant legislation on climate change? The latter may have cost the Democrats just as much as Obamacare — but I would trade six years of hanging on for dear life so that the Republicans don’t repeal the climate legislation to six years of hanging on for dear life for the sake of “bending the curve” and getting down to “only” 11% of Americans uninsured.

5 Responses to “Obamacare Wasn’t Worth It”

  1. burritoboy Says:

    I think you are making too much of a dichotomy that doesn’t exist, and thus unwittingly letting yourself be manipulated by Obama excusers. I also think your thinking is underrating how big a thing the Great Recession was and remains. The proposed dichotomy is the assertion by Obama excusers that the Presidential administration could only work on one major issue at a time. That’s simply not true. Or, if it is true, Obama’s excusers should at least be made to work much harder to convince everyone of it.

    So, yes, I agree that Obamacare wasn’t worth it, but I agree in the sense that passing Obamacare only was the problem. I myself get healthcare through Obamacare, so it’s done me plenty of good. The ACA was and remains deeply flawed, but it’s perhaps reasonable to argue that it was the best or a good first move in fixing the health care disaster that was the US health care system. I just don’t believe it had to be the Administration’s only focus in 2009-2010.

  2. Rodrigo Blanco Says:

    RE: “Obama entered office with an unmistakable mandate and control of both houses of Congress — including a rare fillibuster-proof majority in the Senate — and the Democrats wasted it.”

    This is false: 60 senate seats is supermajority. He has 58 at first and made it to 59 when Al Franken was finally seated after a long contested election.

    So there was either filibuster or you had to compromise (meaning give particular republicans something they wanted or they would not advance a bill). This is why the ACA was disfigured so heavily from the initial bill.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    He would have had 60 from day one if the Republicans hadn’t spuriously contested Franken’s election. If Franken had been seated promptly, there would have been a 60-vote majority until Ted Kennedy died.

  4. WLGR Says:

    burritoboy: “The proposed dichotomy is the assertion by Obama excusers that the Presidential administration could only work on one major issue at a time. That’s simply not true. Or, if it is true, Obama’s excusers should at least be made to work much harder to convince everyone of it.”

    The premise seems to be that doing more than one big thing at a time would have provoked the GOP into turning obstruction dials up to 11, but this flat-out contradicts the stated excuse for the ACA ultimately ending up as such a threadbare neoliberal piece of crap, that the GOP’s obstruction dials were permanently fixed at 11 no matter what the Democrats did or didn’t do. Assuming Congresspeople and their administrative hangers-on are materially capable of considering more than one complex proposal over the same months-long period without collapsing from overwork like a 16-year-old Bangladeshi girl stitching their Brooks Brothers suits, this refusal to multitask seems at first glance to imply that Democrats didn’t really believe they had a mandate to implement their full agenda — and in this sense it wasn’t obviously bullshit for a Fox News viewer circa 2009 to wonder why Democrats weren’t pushing as hard on other areas they claimed to care about as they were on health care, a first step toward concluding that the ACA secretly was the Democrats’ full agenda and was actually a plot to implement totalitarian big-government Nazi Stalinist death panels or whatever.

    Of course without depicting the ACA as the 1933 Enabling Act times a bazillion, another explanation of Democratic policymakers’ behavior is that Republican obstruction is their indispensable ideological fetish in obscuring the contradiction between their firmly neoliberal policy preferences and the vaguely social-democratic policy preferences of their voters. Imagine if Democrats in 2009-10 had passed big-ticket “progressive” legislation like the ACA in all sorts of areas like climate, infrastructure, education, housing etc., and imagine how much it might clarify the liberal/left split to see headlines like the current ACA premium hikes resulting from every single one of these high-profile neoliberalized “successes”. Much better for mealy-mouthed liberals to make an end run around the dilemma by whining to the left that Mitch McConnell ate their homework.

  5. burritoboy Says:

    “Imagine if Democrats in 2009-10 had passed big-ticket “progressive” legislation like the ACA in all sorts of areas like climate, infrastructure, education, housing etc., ”

    Frankly, I suspect that the Democrats simply didn’t have anything at all ready to offer on most policy areas in 2009-2010. They had bought into neoclassical economics nearly as much as the Republicans. So when the economic collapse came in 2007-2008, they were caught almost as off guard as their opponents were. Not quite as off guard because handfuls of Democrats had limited gauzy recollections of what the original Keynesians had done. But still, it took far too long to even get a modicum level of acceptance of even the most mild form of Keynesianism amongst the most progressive of the Democrats. By the time even that minority was convinced, the moment for action had passed.


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