Assessing Obamacare By the Numbers

As the final figures roll in, the conventional wisdom still calls it a disaster. Yet far more people say they can live with the law than back repeal.


Brace yourself, friends, for the new hate-and-snicker-fest on the right about the Obamacare numbers. It started over the weekend—actually, it’s been more or less ongoing since last fall—but it’s going to crescendo now that the enrollment deadline has been reached. Six million, eh? Bah. A million below expectations, they’ll say, and in any case a fake number. That’s what Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said Sunday on Fox; the administration is “cooking the books.” He didn’t reveal how he knows this, but of course he wasn’t pressed on the point.

As of Sunday morning while Barrasso was speaking, the enrollment figure was edging close to 6.6 million, and by midnight tonight it might well hit 7 million. Conservatives will say it’s all a big con. Two criticisms have some merit. First, it’s certainly true that signing up isn’t the same thing as paying premiums on a month-to-basis. So we’ll have to see about that over time. Second, the percent of enrollees who are young and healthy is apparently a little lower than the most optimistic hopes (it's around 27 percent).

Those are open questions that can’t be answered for a while. But they provide no basis on which to doubt the raw numbers. There was a similar late rush on Romneycare, when nearly 7,800 Bay Staters signed up in the last month before the deadline, around twice as many as during a typical earlier month. And they certainly don’t demonstrate fraudulence. Unless the photographers who snapped these photos that appear on the White House blog are working under the same orders from Pyongyang as the people who allegedly concocted Barack Obama’s birth certificate, there’s nothing fraudulent going on here, either: What you see here, instead, are long lines of people waiting to enroll at sign-up centers in cities across the country.

It’s still going to be a huge challenge to shift public opinion. Or is it? Maybe it’s shifting already. Consider these numbers from a Kaiser Foundation poll from last week. Percent who like the ACA’s extension of dependent coverage: 76. Percent supportive of the act’s closing of the Medicare drug “donut hole”: 73. Percent favoring “guaranteed issue” of coverage to people who are already sick: 69. Percent who back the Medicaid expansion: 62.

Oh, wait. Those are the Republican percentages. The overall percentages, respectively, are 80, 79, 70, and 74.

It’s the same old disconnect. Just as majorities of even rank-and-file Republicans support things like restricting the gun-show loophole (indeed a majority of NRA members support that), majorities of Republicans back these and other basic common-sense provisions of the ACA. And yet these same Republicans keep reelecting to Congress a horde of dishonest and ideologically driven harlots who’ve voted 50-whatever times to do away with all these positive changes.

And the mainstream media continue to insist that because of one congressional race in Florida in a district Republicans have held since Nixon was president, that this law is going to be the Democrats’ downfall this November. And why is that? Well, because they’ve decided. Obama and the Democrats are forcing this whole thing down people’s throats, and the Republicans’ repeal position represents the will of the besieged people.

Related: Robert Shrum: 100 Years of Right (and Left) Moves

Is that so? Here are two other numbers from the Kaiser poll. They gave people four options: keep the law as is, keep it and change it where needed, get of it and replace with a GOP alternative, and simply get rid of it and replace it with nothing. The first two and the second two can be reasonably grouped together as “basically support the law” and “basically oppose the law.” The numbers are 59 to 29. Not against—in support of the law.

My main point here is not to argue that Obamacare will be a plus for Democrats this fall. I think, as I’ve often written, that it can be—or that it at least can be a draw if Democrats pound away on the specifics and challenge Republicans to defend a world in which sick people can again be denied coverage and all the rest. That would be a nice little layer of icing, because it would prove the smug conventional wisdom as wrong as it usually is.

But the cake has to do with the way this entire conversation has been framed in the media. Imagine that the Democrats were standing implacably behind a position that had the backing of 29 percent of the people. (This number on repeal, by the way, is in line with most recent polls, which find the percentage favoring repeal to be in the low 30s, like this one; I should note that there was recently one poll, by AP, which put the repeal number much higher, at 41. I bet you can guess which of those polls has received more media coverage.) They’d be murdered in the press. Out of touch elitists.

But it’s one of the key rules of lazy political journalism that Republicans are the heartland and by definition can’t be out of touch with it (rules dreamed up, by the way, mostly by people from the Eastern seaboard who went to private universities and haven’t the slightest idea in the world about the actual heartland). Only Democrats can be. That’s how it can come to pass that liberals and Democrats can be defending a law whose major provisions enjoy broad support, and a law that most Americans have come around to accepting as a part of life that they’ll learn to live with, and be called out of touch. And it’s why John Barrasso can get away with making evidence-free allegations on Sunday morning television. But remember: Unwell people are getting health coverage for the first time in their lives by the millions. The people who are in charge of our “perception” will catch up with reality someday.