Obamacare key to Democrats' turnaround: Why they must embrace it ASAP

Democrats should stop dancing around Obamacare and make it part of their jobs and economic inequality message

By Simon Maloy
Published November 4, 2014 4:44PM (EST)
Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner                                       (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Well gang, we made it. It’s Election Day in America. According to the many outfits that collect polling data and forecast likely electoral outcomes, more of you are out there voting for Republicans than for Democrats, which means the GOP has far better than even odds of taking control of the Senate. If the Republicans do win the Senate, everyone will say it was because President Obama is unpopular and the Democrats did an insufficiently energetic job of “distancing” themselves from the guy who leads their party. If the Democrats somehow hold on and retain control, then the pundit universe will descend into chaos and darkness as all Conventional Wisdom blinks out of existence and the warmth and light of millions of Hot Takes is instantly extinguished.

Regardless of the outcome, the next election cycle begins tomorrow, and both parties are going to pick over the corpse of the 2014 cycle to figure out what worked and what didn’t. 2016 will be the very last time that people will cast votes while Barack Obama holds the office of the presidency, and if his approval ratings remain static (or worsen), you can be certain the GOP will try their damnedest to run a repeat of this years “make everything about Obama” strategy. Democrats are going to have to find a way to deal with the Obama question one last time – preferably in a way that doesn’t involve shooting guns at things the president likes.

I have just a couple of suggestions: talk about jobs, and in doing so give the Affordable Care Act the love and attention it so desperately needs.

On the jobs front, one of the reasons Democrats aren’t completely out of the running for control of the Senate has been their success at attacking Republicans on outsourcing and job creation. The Senate race in deep-red Georgia is as close as it is because Michelle Nunn has been hammering David Perdue on outsourcing. Jeanne Shaheen has made a late-game push to tie Scott Brown to job losses in Massachusetts. Turns out people pay attention when you talk about this "jobs" issue. And the reason is that there's still a good deal of economic anxiety out there.

The Week’s Ryan Cooper rightly points out that the big problem facing the party holding the White House going into 2016 is that while the nation’s economic recovery has looked decent on paper, in practice it’s been lackluster for everyone outside the top tax bracket. “This should be the guiding star of the left's 2016 agenda,” he writes. “The Obama stimulus was too small and the turn to austerity in 2010 far too premature. Thus, the Democratic Party's policies ought to focus on getting money, jobs, and benefits to those who don't have them.” There won’t be a whole lot Obama or the Democrats will be able to do about it policy-wise, given that Republicans will control one or both houses of Congress and are committed to ongoing gridlock, but they can certainly talk up each and every economic issue in terms of job creation, income inequality, and benefits for the less fortunate.

And that includes the Affordable Care Act. Democrats are still very hesitant when it comes to the law since “Obamacare” remains unpopular and beset by disgusting quantities of misinformation. But the reality they have to recognize is that the public’s understanding of the Affordable Care Act and the law’s approval ratings – which haven’t changed appreciably in years – aren’t going to improve any time soon unless a concerted and high-profile effort is made to embrace and promote the law’s virtues, of which there are many. And the best way to do this is to focus on the law’s positive economic impacts.

The Medicaid expansion stands out as the first and best example. It’s already emerged as one of the more effective and popular portions of the law, and Republican governors across the country are warming up to it, which provides the Democrats with political cover against attacks from hardline conservatives.

In the economic context, one of the best ways to think about it is as a federal stimulus program injecting billions of dollars into state economies. And it works. A study conducted earlier this year found that states that accepted the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA saw three times the rate of job growth in the healthcare and social assistance sectors compared to states that rejected the expansion. Those states that said “no” to Medicaid “are foregoing $423.6 billion in federal Medicaid funds from 2013 to 2022,” according to a report from the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “which will lessen economic activity and job growth.” Accepting the expansion would create over 170,000 jobs in those states next year, according to the Council of Economic Advisers.

And then there’s the economic inequality issue. Democrats have already made clear that economic inequality is going to be one of their big messages heading into 2016, and rightly so since Americans recognize it as a real threat to their well-being. Well, according to the New York Times, the ACA “has done something rather unusual in the American economy this century: It has pushed back against inequality, essentially redistributing income — in the form of health insurance or insurance subsidies — to many of the groups that have fared poorly over the last few decades.”

People with the lowest incomes tended to benefit the most from the law. That makes sense, given how the Affordable Care Act is designed. In states that expanded Medicaid, low-income people can get insurance without having to pay a premium. And for middle-income people who qualify for tax credits to help them buy insurance, the subsidies are most generous for those lowest on the income scale. Poorer people were always the least likely to have insurance because their jobs rarely offered it and private premiums were often unaffordable.

Basically, the Democrats spent most of 2014 ducking and dancing around the ACA by necessity, given the bad map they were facing and the national political climate. As we transition into the next election cycle and the Democrats start looking at a more favorable political environment, the opportunity is there to transform the Affordable Care Act’s reputation and political image as part of a broader offensive on jobs and inequality.

Simon Maloy

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