After Health Care Ruling, Law Still Politically Toxic

Democrats won a victory with last week's Supreme Court ruling, but that doesn't mean the law will become more popular for the party politically. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Democrats won a victory with last week's Supreme Court ruling, but that doesn't mean the law will become more popular for the party politically. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Posted July 2, 2012 at 3:19pm

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding President Barack Obama’s health care law is a historic policy victory for his administration and the Democrats who lost control of the House and their filibuster-proof Senate majority pushing the reform through Congress in the face of united GOP opposition.

But the politics of the Affordable Care Act — or “Obamacare” — are unlikely to improve for Obama and Congressional Democrats running for re-election in 2012, and in fact could boost presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and GOP candidates running down the ticket. Why isn’t Obama’s victory likely to translate into a political boost at the polls? Because, voters’ negative feelings about Obama’s health care overhaul had little to do with questions of its constitutionality.

Sparking the backlash, to name just a few concerns, were Americans’ anxiety about the government taking over the health care system, their fear that they would not be able to keep their current health coverage, and general worries that the law would depress job creation while exploding the federal deficit. Seniors, meanwhile, have been suspicious that the law will move $500 billion out of Medicare to fund the expansion of health insurance for the poor.

Even Democratic strategists tend to agree that the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling to affirm the Affordable Care Act is unlikely to rehabilitate public perception of the law.

“I don’t think swing voters are making their decision on the nuance of the Supreme Court decision. How they feel about a candidate regarding health care is baked in cake,” said a Democratic pollster, who spoke on background in order to be candid.

Even as Americans have expressed favorable opinions about some elements of the statute, including a prohibition against insurance companies denying coverage based on a pre-existing medical condition, public polls have consistently shown broad disapproval of the law in its entirety — both before and since it was enacted. According to the average of all polls released April 11 through June 26, public dissatisfaction with Obamacare outweighed support by 11 points, with 49 percent opposing the law and 38 percent viewing it favorably.

Possibly fueling this dissatisfaction is the chronic high unemployment and meager economic growth that has characterized the economy since Obama took office. Not only do economic concerns tend to trump all other issues and color voters’ perceptions of a president’s actions across the board, most Americans still obtain their health insurance through their employer. The law, however, is built around the current, employer-based health care system.

And, with joblessness consistently above 8 percent and economic anxiety persisting among those who are employed, it is perhaps not surprising that legislation that raised serious concerns among voters for other reasons has remained unpopular more than two years after Obama signed it into law. Not likely to help the statute’s case is the fact that the Supreme Court as a part of its decision ruled that the unpopular mandate to purchase health insurance or face a government fine, is actually a tax.

“This is not a health care issue,” said a Republican strategist with clients running in several races throughout the country.

Obama and Democrats were clearly buoyed by the Supreme Court decision. Republican lawmakers were obviously disappointed and surprised, possibly because Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, joined the court’s liberal wing to create the 5-4 ruling in favor.

But Republican campaign operatives saw nothing but upside for Romney and GOP Congressional candidates. With the Supreme Court’s majority opinion affirming the constitutionality of the health care law on the grounds that the mandate to purchase insurance is actually a tax (the IRS is charged with collecting any fines levied for failure to buy coverage), Republican operatives believe they now have an additional political cudgel to use against Democrats that will make the law even more politically toxic.

They said the Supreme Court’s decision allows Republicans to unquestionably frame the debate over Obamacare as an economic and jobs issue, as opposed to simply a health care issue, and that it neatly crystallizes the stakes for voters as the November elections approach. The GOP strategist with clients in several races throughout the country said the Republican message should be simple and consistent — that the law threatens the economy, will worsen the debt crisis and discourage businesses from hiring.

“The base is energized in a big way and the issue is at least a slight winner with indies.  I know there are differing opinions on this, but I bet today’s action nets us a point in [voter] turnout,” a Republican consultant in a swing state added. “The Supremes calling this a tax was just icing on the cake.  The punitive affect on small businesses and employers generally will now be front and center and the message will not serve Democrats well.”

This might be the spin one would expect from a Republican following an outcome that the GOP was clearly rooting against. But as of late Thursday, Romney had raised at least $2.5 million online from more than 24,000 contributors in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court announcing its decision, according to his campaign.

For a candidate that has been a strong fundraiser among major and medium donors but weak with small donors who populate the ranks of conservative activists, this was no small achievement. That could be an interesting development with lasting implications.