THE BLOG
10/06/2013 10:22 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What if Obamacare Is Popular?

It's beginning to look as if the Republican effort to hold the rest of the government hostage for the sacking of the Affordable Care Act just might backfire, big time. For starters, the effort has elicited something long missing on the part of this president -- some spine.

Ever since he stepped into the Rose Garden on October 1 to warn the Republicans that he simply wasn't prepared to negotiate while the government was shut down and default on the debt was threatened, we've seen a much tougher Obama. The split in the Republicans, meanwhile, continues to widen, with an ever-increasing backlash among party professionals against the nihilism of Ted Cruz and company. Poor John Boehner tacks back and forth between frantically trying to hold his coalition together and signaling that he'd be willing to suspend the Hastert Rule and allow pragmatic Republicans vote with Democrats to keep the government open.

Public opinion seems to be moving against the Republicans. The question is no longer whether they will continue their suicidal gambit but when they will cave and on what terms.

Weirdly, by threatening to shut the government unless Obama killed the Affordable Care act, they got the opposite of what they sought. The rest of the government is closed, and Obamacare is open for business.

And, while Republicans and movement conservatives have spent the better part of a year demonizing Obama's health reform, the more people become familiar with it, the more people will appreciate it -- leaving the Republican alarmism with no clothes. In that regard, the president and his strategists would do well to change one core piece of their rhetoric. In his Rose Garden remarks, the president said this:

Now, of course, if you're one of the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, you don't need to do a thing. You're already benefiting from new benefits and protections that have been in place for some time under this law. But for the 15 percent of Americans who don't have health insurance, this opportunity is life-changing.

In fact, that's profoundly wrong, and weakens the president's case. The statistically accurate contention that 85 percent of people will have no change in their insurance is a throwback to the early days of the health reform debate, when focus groups suggested that people who had employer-provided insurance and liked it needed to be reassured.

But a lot has changed since then. Employer coverage is eroding. People who lose jobs or change jobs typically lose their insurance. COBRA protection paid entirely by the former worker is only a temporary and largely unaffordable stopgap.

The fact is that the Affordable Care Act helps a lot more the 15 percent of the population. Young adults with no employer-provided insurance (and their parents) already know how valuable Obamacare is, for allowing people under age 26 to stay on their parents' insurance. People without jobs and at risk of losing jobs are also coming to value the Affordable Care Act.

There is an analogy here with the revolution in broad acceptance of sexual diversity. As more and more gays and lesbians came out, straight people were initially shocked, then surprisingly accepting, as they realized that they had a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member who turned out to be gay.

As more and more people sign up for affordable insurance thanks to Obama Care, many Americans who have insurance (and many who are worried about losing it) will hear heart-rending firsthand stories about friends, colleagues and relatives with medical worries, who finally get insurance. That coalition is a lot more than 15 percent.

Many of these people, incidentally, are in red states, where the percentage of the uninsured tends to be far higher than the national average. In several such states, Republican governors have broken ranks and signed their states up for the provision of the Affordable Care Act that has the Federal government finance nearly all the costs of expanded Medicaid.

No wonder the Republicans are so desperate to kill Obamacare in utero. The more it takes effect, the more their hysteria will be proven to be a phony. By 2014, when the Republican House majority will present itself for re-election, the Affordable Care Act could be quite popular. What then?

President Obama, increasingly, finds himself in the chips. Let's see if this time he can resist the impulse to fold a winning hand.


Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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