President Obama’s greatest achievement and perhaps his greatest failure is the same piece of legislation – Obamacare or, more officially, the Affordable Care Act.
The intent of the ACA was ambitious: to provide health care insurance for most of the 40 million Americans who had no coverage at all. Without health insurance, these people were likely to be forced to accept inferior medical care.
This law has become they symbol of the failure of the Obama administration and the cause of low ratings of Obama himself.
How did this come about?
It began with the adoption of the law itself. With control of the House and the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to block a Republican filibuster, Democrats believed they could pass almost any bill they wanted.
Still, they did not have enough support in their own party for a single-payer system, used by most developed countries. But they could pass a bill that would improve on a system in which health care providers could charge ever-higher prices and insurers could pick who they would cover and set the premiums.
The result was an unusual hybrid system with both some public elements and a continued role for the traditional players. And it would achieve the goal of covering added millions pf people.
The bill shuttled back and forth between the House and Senate. Secure in their belief they could pass the bill on their own, the Democrats made no concessions to Republicans, especially then Maine GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, who had shown a willingness to try to forge a compromise. Most other Republicans simply wanted the bill killed.
Then Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died and was replaced by a Republican, eliminating the Democrats’ ability to block a GOP filibuster. The only way the bill could pass was by taking the incomplete version already passed by the Senate but without any more House changes and adopting it.
In short, the cause of the Obamacare bill being flawed was mainly the filibuster.
This virtually guaranteed Obamacare would become a bitter issue between the two parties. The mandate – the requirement for many people to purchase insurance or pay a penalty – was opposed by all Republicans, though it had been a GOP idea a few years earlier.
The situation was worsened by a combination of inaccurate promises and poor promotion.
The president claimed the law, which almost certainly he had not fully read, would allow people to keep their current coverage. That should have been true, but was not.
Its supporters also said it would not increase costs. Yet, how could Obamacare, which would insure additional millions of people, cost no more than then current coverage?
These shortcomings were small compared to the complete failure of the White House and the Democratic leadership to promote the law. Beginning with the 2010 congressional elections, the GOP made Obamacare a national issue, while the Democrats said nothing, mistakenly believing the elections would turn on local issues.
The result was the issue belonged to the Republicans, and the Democrats were continually fighting off attacks or trying to dodge them.
The debate over Obamacare finally came to set the tone of the broader political debate in the country. The Republicans could go from attacking the increased government role under Obamacare to opposing the role of government across the board.
And just as with their failure to argue for Obamacare, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be placed on the defensive, at best, or to become anti-government GOP copycats, at worst.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a part of the Senate Democratic leadership, now says the whole idea was a mistake, and the Democrats should have focused on other issues.
Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor and key player in drafting the law, is now running off at the mouth about how clever he was in fooling Americans about the very nature of insurance, in which premiums paid by some people cover the costs of others.
If the Democrats refuse to be, well, Democrats, they will continue to turn the government over to the Republicans. This year’s poor turnout in the congressional elections was caused mainly by Democratic voters staying home.
The Democrats could propose the necessary measures to repair Obamacare, even if the GOP refuses to adopt them. Merely trying to block repeal moves by the Republicans or their friendly Supreme Court majority is not enough.
While the time has passed for offering spending measures to cure every ill, the Democrats could be forthright in making the case for the role of government. For example, roads and bridges desperately need repair, and that takes government funds.
And, hopeless as it may seem, both parties should seek areas for bipartisan action.