Daniel McCarthy

Obamacare? Not in the least

The president has squandered political capital on healthcare reform and brought America to the brink

Obamacare? Not in the least
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 Washington, DC

On or around 17 October, the United States will stop paying its bills. The US Treasury will reach the limit of the debt it can legally issue — the ‘debt ceiling’ — and unless Barack Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives come to an agreement, the US will stand on the brink of default.

How did Obama get us into this mess? More importantly, can he get us out before the country (if not the world) plummets into crisis?

The answer to the first question might surprise you: Obama is not an adroit politician. Good at winning votes, yes — not only better than the Republicans he faced in 2008 and last year, but better than Bill Clinton and either of the Bushes. Obama is the first President since Ronald Reagan to win outright popular majorities at two elections. Actually governing, on the other hand, is another matter. He had not the slightest experience with that before becoming President, and after five years’ on-the-job training, he’s still no good at it. His biggest mistake was spending every penny of his political capital on his healthcare reform — officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but known everywhere as Obamacare.

Obama took office amid the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, but soon decided that his priority was not recovery at all costs, but overhauling the private insurance system by which Americans receive healthcare, with new mandates and regulations to ensure coverage for everyone — no matter the cost in dollars or jobs. Fearing the electoral consequences, Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress set the law to take effect in stages, with much of it going into operation on 1 October this year — a safe distance from last year’s presidential election and next year’s congressional -contests.

Instead of easing the political pain, however, this schedule has drawn it out. Obama set his own date with destiny for this month, and now America is paying the price.

Obamacare failed to win Republican support when it became law in 2009. Not a single Republican voted for it. Obama didn’t need his opponents’ votes to pass the reform, but the next year he paid a price, as the Republicans — spurred by Tea Party activists vehemently opposed to Obamacare — took control of the House of Representatives.

That was three years ago, three years in which Obama might have absorbed the lesson of that disastrous congressional election. But he didn’t: he took no notice of the Tea Party or what the politics of Obamacare meant for the Republican Party, which since 2010 has controlled the chamber of Congress from which spending bills must originate. Even as Obama won re-election last year, the Tea Party movement showed remarkable strength and sent Ted Cruz from Texas to the Senate (in the face of opposition from the party establishment). Cruz and other Tea Party-backed Republicans made clear, last year and in 2010, that they would do absolutely everything in their power to stop Obamacare.

And they have. Cruz gave a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor in September to hold up the appropriations bill that would fund Obamacare — and the rest of the government — and Republicans in the House of Representatives joined him in the fight to defund the Affordable Care Act. Now, with the federal government shut down and tensions high, Republicans have signalled that they will extend their resistance to preventing a debt-ceiling hike. Since the beginning of this month, more of Obamacare has already taken effect, but the Republicans are pressing for other items on their wishlist, such as cuts to other spending. Obama so far refuses to bargain.

Obama is counting on popular outrage and Wall Street’s mounting fear of default to rein in the Republicans for him. But he has misjudged his opponents’ resolve all along. The Tea Party has certainly shown itself willing to lose elections in the name of principle, by supporting insurgent Republicans for congressional seats where establishment candidates would have a better shot. Ohio Republican John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, may not be a true believer, but he can ill afford to antagonise his party’s right wing, or his own head could be on a platter after next year’s election.

Obama knows this. He knew he had failed to win any leeway from Republicans when his law first passed. He never made up for its deficit in bipartisan support. And now he knows his opponents have neither the will nor the opportunity to relent. And what has Obama done?

What he has not done is build enough popular support for Obamacare to counteract the Tea Party and give Republican moderates hope that anyone would support a defector from their ranks. More than half the public, according to most polls, disapprove of Obamacare. The President has failed as well to establish a personal rapport with any Republican who could help him break the impasse. And he has failed to swallow his pride and offer concessions that could clear the way to raising the debt ceiling. The President could hold firm if he had the public with him, or if he could seduce Republicans into breaking ranks. But that’s beyond his political skill.

What can save him now? Only what has saved him before: the ineptitude of his enemies. Republicans managed to lose last year’s presidential election despite the parlous state of the economy. And while Obama has not won the public over to supporting his law, a staggering 70 per cent of Americans polled for the Washington Post and ABC News say they disapprove of how Republicans have handled negotiations over the shutdown. The debt ceiling is an order of magnitude more serious than the shutdown, and Obama might be right that this time Republicans will blink. But if they do, it will not be because Obama outmanoeuvred them — but rather because, once again, they will have out outmanoeuvred themselves. With enemies like that, even a President like Obama thinks he can win.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of the American Conservative.