It’s damn near end times for Barack Obama, to hear some tell it.
There’s a new Pew poll that has him at 41 percent approval, 53 disapproval, which Pew notes ominously is only five percentage points better than George W. Bush’s at this point in his term. (Hurricane Katrina had happened in August of Bush’s fifth year.) Conservative columnists are chuckling and clucking and tweeting to beat the band. Centrist journalist Mark Halperin, on MSNBC yesterday, declared that Obama had lost the media, which was now cheering against the success of the Affordable Care Act and just wants to see… well, people go without insurance, I guess. If everything—everything!—isn’t fixed by Nov. 30, we’re looking at a presidency that is going to collapse into utter disaster.
It’s obvious enough why conservatives would be saying this. They’ve wanted Obama to fail from the start, and they’ve certainly wanted the health-care bill to fail from the moment of its passage. Journalists like Halperin say these things not for ideological reasons, but temperamental ones: In this Halperinesque/Politico-esque world view, politics is less about people’s lives than it is about who is displaying mastery of the game and who is being mastered at any given moment (of course, seeing politics so insistently through that lens is a kind of ideology of its own, but we’ll let that pass). To that group of mainstream journalists, how Obama handles the current crisis will determine whether the administration will survive or whether he might as well just resign now.
I don’t deny that the current situation is a crisis, and one of the administration’s own making. Obama misled people. It’s a small percentage of people. They’re at the mercy of the most horrible end of the private-insurance market, and the vast majority of them are going to be better off after everything shakes out and they see that their new plans are largely better than their old ones were. But even so, they’re people, and they’re getting termination notices, and he misled them. Combine it with the website chaos, and it’s bad, there’s no sense in denying it.
What I do deny, vigorously, is that this is a make-or-break moment. Yes, I know that Obamacare is his signature initiative and all that. And I know that if problems persist after Nov. 30, pressure will mount on Harry Reid to let some kind of tinkering legislation be debated. This is a very important three weeks for the administration, and the 30th is an extremely important deadline.
But there’s a certain type of political journalism that so exists in the moment that numerous such moments have been declared to be disasters for Obama, going back to Jeremiah Wright. This kind of hyperventilating approach always turns out to be wrong and overheated. It turned out that all those things were pretty bad, but it also turned out that Obama survived them. And he’ll survive this, too.
What will happen in all likelihood is what usually happens in life and politics—that is, nothing all that dramatic. Nov. 30 will come, and the website will be more or less (though not entirely) fixed up, and life, and Obamacare, will go on. There will be more horror stories, natch, but there will be more success stories too, and sometime between now and next March 31, when the enrollment period ends, the media are going to get a little bored with the whole thing, and it will just go on irresolutely for a while, but eventually it will start becoming clear to the American people that the reform is working pretty well in the states that tried and pretty poorly in the states that didn’t, and people will start to get the point about Republican sabotage.
And then, provided health care survives that initial stage without being altered for the worse by Congress, it’s going to start to work. Well. Resistant insurance companies and even some resistant governors and state legislatures are going to see that it appears to be here to stay, and they will accommodate themselves to that reality.
Obamacare will never be a raging success. This is another error much of journalism is prone to make—looking for it to be an overwhelming success. That won’t happen because at the end of the day we’re still talking about private health insurance, and private health insurance was a pain in the tuchus before Obamacare and will remain one after it. People will always complain about their coverage. But by early 2016, I have little doubt, there will be millions more Americans who’ll be doing the complaining, and they’ll be happy to have the opportunity to do so.
Conservatives are desperate for health care to be Obama’s Katrina. Certain centrist journalists want to see it just for entertainment’s sake or as a test of Obama’s presidential “character.” I won’t say there’s zero chance of it happening. If Nov. 30 comes and the website is an unmitigated disaster, then maybe that’ll be the case. But I will say that I think the chances of it are very slim indeed. The unfortunate thing is the Republicans have just enough power to gum up the works so that even if the administration does fix up everything on its end, the GOP can keep hauling Kathleen Sebelius up to the Hill and taking other steps to make sure things look worse than they are. But Obama will survive, and more importantly, Obamacare will too.