Politics & Policy

How Obama Got the Individual Mandate So Wrong

It has too many complications and not enough consensus.

President Obama insists that the public would rise up in anger should the Supreme Court strike down all or part of his healthcare law. James Carville, a former strategist for Bill and Hillary Clinton, claims a death sentence for Obamacare would benefit Democrats.

Such arguments border on fantasy. The reaction to the closely watched Supreme Court oral arguments on Obamacare shows that the law lost ground with the public the more the public followed the issue. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll pegs support for the overall law at 39 percent, the lowest level of backing since this poll first began tracking the issue in 2009. Only about half of Democrats want the entire law upheld.

In contrast, approval of the Supreme Court has increased following the roughing up it gave Obamacare. A new Rasmussen Reports survey found that the percentage of likely voters who rate the court as good or excellent went up 13 points in a month, to 41 percent. A full 42 percent of independents and unaffiliated voters rank the court highly, up from 26 percent only a month ago.

Even some liberals acknowledge that when it comes to public opinion, the law resembles the dead parrot in that old Monty Python skit. When the Daily Beast asked media and policy experts how the law could be better marketed, the general sense was that it was too late. “Medicare was marketable because it was understandable,” says Lawrence O’Donnell, the liberal MSNBC host who was staff director of the Senate Finance Committee when it debated Hillarycare in the 1990s. “I have never met anyone, outside of the government, who can describe what the new healthcare law is. You cannot market something that is indescribable.”

#ad#Everyone seems to agree that the weakest part of Obamacare is its individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy a comprehensive healthinsurance plan of the government’s design. “This territory invades basic American principles,” O’Donnell says. “It always has, and it’s a problem.”

Artur Davis, the former Democratic congressman from Alabama who was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to oppose Obamacare, agrees. “Americans are suspicious of things that are too big and complex, and the insurance mandate only heightened their concerns,” he told me from his current position as a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. “Democrats paid a huge price for backing it in 2010.”

Davis says the establishments of both parties underestimated the visceral reaction Americans would have against the coercive individual mandate, which nearly 70 percent of voters oppose. Mitt Romney certainly miscalculated on the national reaction against it when he pushed through a state-level version of the mandate in Massachusetts, a state that is one of the country’s most liberal and that also already had one of the lowest percentages of people without health insurance. He wrapped up the Republican nomination this month, but it took a lot longer for him to overcome a relatively weak field of competitors in part because some GOP voters didn’t buy his stance that he opposed a national mandate as unworkable and unconstitutional.

Davis and other Democrats also don’t believe President Obama will benefit politically if his signature piece of domestic legislation is declared unconstitutional. “It would just reinforce arguments some made that he spent a year and a half pushing through health care instead of focusing more on the economy,” Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told me. “If the court were to toss the whole law out, it would look to many like so much wasted effort.”

No one should presume to predict how the Supreme Court will rule on Obamacare, but few argue that it will cease to be a political albatross for the president. As early as last September, a panel of liberal journalists on NBC News consisting of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman, and David Ignatius of the Washington Post all agreed that Obama’s “biggest political mistake” was devoting so much time and attention to health care. “The idea of launching a major change in social legislation without having a consensus in the country and in Congress about what that should look like was a mistake,” Ignatius summed up. “That’s just not how a president makes good policy.”

The irony is that when he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama was shrewd enough to oppose an individual mandate that Americans buy health insurance, and he used Hillary Clinton’s support of the idea as a club against her. “My general attitude was the reason people don’t have health insurance is not [that] they don’t want it; it’s because they can’t afford it,” he told reporters after he was elected. “And if you make it affordable, then they’ll come.”

But once in office, he went in the opposite direction, in part to find a way to obscure the costs of adding millions of new participants to the rolls of Medicaid and other federal health programs. The only way Obama could even plausibly argue that his plan would cut the deficit rather than add to it was by creating fiscal smoke and mirrors. But even that wasn’t enough. He had to shift the burden of paying for some of the bill onto younger workers, who would be forced to buy a comprehensive insurance policy.

Obama was convinced that the popularity of extending insurance coverage to millions of Americans would far outweigh objections to provisions such as the individual mandate. Whether or not he wins reelection this November, it will prove to be one of the most spectacular political miscalculations made by any president. 

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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