A year before President Obama proclaimed “we are done” as he signed a $940 billion health-care bill into law, he put his name to an $887 billion stimulus bill.
In both cases, everyone agreed that Congress needed to address the problem, but there the consensus stopped. Some thought that market forces and innovation in the private sector would solve the problem without government interference, while others thought that cutting taxes, eliminating regulatory hurdles, and empowering Americans with new economic tools could speed the process along. Many worried that the favored response of the Democratic majority in Congress — heavy-handed government intervention via costly and complex legislation — would only make things worse.
And in both cases, major new pieces of legislation — like newly elected presidents — enjoyed a honeymoon in public opinion. Obamacare is enjoying its now: Gallup found a majority of Americans viewing the bill’s passage as a “good thing” while Quinnipiac saw a net nine-point drop in opposition.
But supporters should learn from the stimulus debacle not to bask too long in the afterglow. After peaking at a median approval of between 53 and 58 percent in late January and early February of 2009, public opinion on the stimulus entered a steady decline, from which it has not yet recovered. The pollsters with the most contiguous data series over 2009–10, Gallup and Rasmussen, showed public opinion cratering in the dog days of summer of 2009 — Gallup at 41 percent, and the somewhat right-leaning Rasmussen at an abysmal 25 percent.
Rasmussen and other polls show a slight rebound coinciding with the beginning of the fourth quarter and the holiday season, but nothing like majority approval emerges. A January 2010 CNN poll showed approval of the stimulus at 42 percent, down 18 points from its high the previous February. A CBS/NYT poll showed 32 percent approval in December of 2009. And, most recently, a March 2010 Bloomberg poll shows approval static at 37 percent, with nearly half of that bloc believing only that the stimulus is “keeping [the economy] from getting worse.”
It is safe to say that the salad days for the stimulus are over. So what’s the lesson for Obamacare? Consider why the stimulus came to be widely viewed as a failure.
The stimulus had its problems in execution — the phantom districts and jobs created; the waste, fraud, and “accounting errors”; the steady line of porcine deals that emerged from the bill’s fine print — that contributed to public disaffection. And thanks to Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats’ “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it” mentality, Obamacare is sure to have more than its share of these as well.
And perhaps the most important reason that the stimulus tanked is that it failed to live up to its central promise: to quickly and effectively stem unemployment and create jobs. While Washington was debating the stimulus in January of 2009, unemployment stood at 7.6 percent. By October, it had reached 10.1 percent, and it remains at 9.7 percent today. This inconvenient fact left the White House scrambling to repeatedly lower the bar for “success” (remember the ever-evolving definition of “jobs created or saved”?) and eager to change the subject to its more-of-the-same 2010 “jobs” bill. The American public didn’t buy it.
One can see the beginnings of a similar retreat already underway in the Obamacare laws. After a year of liberal punditry repeating with great theatricality that health-care reform would save tens of thousands of lives, slash infant mortality, and dramatically reduce medical bankruptcies, The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle translated these claims into minimal, testable hypotheses. She predicted that none would come to pass and challenged all comers to endorse the other side of that bet. She has yet to receive any takers — only hedging from Obamacare cheerleaders such as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein.
But the law will truly fall from the public’s good graces as it becomes clear that Obamacare has no real chance of delivering on its biggest promises: deficit reduction and tax cuts for the middle class. When Congress passes the $200 billion “doc fix” later this spring, as surely it will, it will have wiped out and then some what little deficit reduction there is to be found in the bill. And as more and more businesses come to see (as Verizon, Deere, and Caterpillar already have) that the bill’s litany of new taxes is a jobs-and-innovation killer, their employees and customers alike will begin to see that health-care reform is not a free lunch for working Americans.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D., Mich.) said that the final passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had brought to many Democrats “a feeling [that] we can go back home, be proud of what we have done.” Levin said he sensed the political tides “turning” in favor of the bill. If the stimulus is any guide, Levin and Democrats should enjoy those favorable tides while they last. But look out for that undertow — it’s a doozy.
– Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.