GOP's ongoing election strategy: Obamacare "stinks"

The president's poll numbers are low, but the reasons why have less to do with the ACA than Republicans think

Published January 26, 2014 3:00PM (EST)


This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global PostNEW HAVEN, Conn. — Republicans believe the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is the key to keeping the House and winning the Senate in this year's midterm elections.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told reporters that, "The law stinks, and it's a disaster. It's not possible for this not to be the No. 1 issue in the 2014 elections."

GOP strategists were more enthusiastic when they told the Washington Examiner that President Barack Obama's health care law was "electoral gold." They claim Obama's credibility sustained considerable damage after reports of canceled policies that contravened Obama's assurances that nothing would change for policyholders. With polls showing his job approval near record lows, the Republicans "question Obama's ability to fully recover."

There are good reasons to wonder if he can recover, but there's far more to it than “Obamacare.” Those same polls show voter approval has been declining for months, long before it was clear that Obamacare's website was broken, and long before, as Republicans love to say, the president was caught in the lie of the year.

As he has since first taking office, Obama continues to be haunted by the specter of an economy that fails to thrive. It's probable, given the congressional redistricting, that the Republicans will keep the House. But if they want to take the Senate, they must address Americans' bread-and-butter concerns.

Back to the polls. Gallup is a kind of bellwether because it tracks Obama's approval daily. Its annual 2013 report showed the president starting the year at 53 percent. Then in March, his average fell sharply to 48 percent, the steepest drop of the year, steeper than after controversy over ensued. The reason for this was the sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts to almost everything in the federal budget.

Obama's average never fully recovered. It improved after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, but by May, it began a long period of decline due to revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden that the Obama administration was overseeing a massive domestic spying operation. By August, his average was down to 45 percent. By September, when the president championed intervention into the Syrian Civil War, it had fallen to 44 percent.

During this time, the unemployment rate gradually declined, but few gave him credit. Even as the Republicans were being blamed for the shutdown, Obama's average was slouching toward 43 percent. After it was clear that the administration had badly botched the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, his approval fell from 43 to 41 percent, the second steepest drop after sequestration began. His average stayed at 41 percent for the rest of the year.

What can we deduce from Gallup's report? One, Obamacare is only one factor in the president's net-negative rating. Two, it didn't hurt him as much as sequestration did. Three, Democrats and independents (these are Gallup's labels) are most responsible for the president's net-negative approval. They didn't like the sequester, spying on Americans, or the push for war—and they didn't like the fact that Obamacare wasn't working the way it should. Gallup found that Republican approval, by contrast, remained fairly steady (under 10 percent).

More importantly, Obama's troubles stem primarily from economics rather than politics. Overshadowing 2013 was an economy that's working very well for some, but going horribly wrong for a great many more. Indeed, Gallup finds that Obama's approval rating tracks closely to Americans' perception of the way he is handling the economy. Unfairly or not, the more Americans feel the growing disconnect between their lives and the record-breaking profits enjoyed by corporations, the more they blame the president. For this reason, Obama and the Democrats are right in making economic inequality their mantra for the midterms.

Why are the Republicans focusing on Obamacare instead of economics? Partly because it worked in 2010. Partly because they are reading the president's approval rating too narrowly. In essence, they believe their view of Obamacare—it’s a disaster!—is finally being vindicated in the polls when Obama's low approval is the result of a variety of factors.

More broadly, this is not a party in the habit of solving problems. This continued focus on Obamacare may ultimately reflect the GOP's ongoing poverty of ideas. They can't offer an alternative to Obamacare or to the Democrat's economic proposals (as modest as they are), because they don't have a viable philosophy of go.

By John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.

MORE FROM John Stoehr

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2014 Elections Globalpost Gop Obamacare Reince Priebus The Affordable Care Act