Good news for Obamacare supporters: It’s quite a bit less unpopular than it was a few months ago.
The uptick leads to the question: Will the Affordable Care Act ever actually be popular? Looking at the long run, Republicans may have done the law a favor by naming it Obamacare.
The most difficult factor to overcome is built into the structure of the law. People who benefit directly from expanded coverage are either on Medicaid or are buying private insurance on exchanges that don’t mention the Affordable Care Act, let alone Obamacare. Those who stand to gain indirectly from the cost-cutting part (if it pans out) or from new regulations on insurers are even less likely to know that the rules against lifetime caps on medical bills were part of health-care reform.
And we’ve likely already reached or passed peak awareness of how Obamacare helped those with pre-existing conditions, to cite another example. As time goes on, fewer and fewer new enrollees will know they once would have been denied coverage, even for minor health problems.
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It’s true that most of the costs of the law are indirect as well. But because it was so highly publicized, it’s easy for people to blame any health-care problems on the Affordable Care Act. (Others can pass the buck. Employers, for example, can fault the law when they shift health-insurance costs to employees for unrelated reasons.)
Yes, all this bodes ill for Obamacare’s long-term popularity. But the recent rally suggests another possibility. The simplest explanation for the rise has nothing to do with the law or health care at all. An improved economy has caused about a five-percentage-point recovery in Barack Obama’s approval ratings. As the president becomes more popular, the law most closely identified with him benefits too.
And he is probably going to be a lot more popular in five years than he is now. Former presidents usually bask in a nostalgic glow after they leave office. While events could still make a difference, Obama is well-positioned to take advantage of that effect: To date, at least, he has no major wars to regret, and the nation hasn’t plunged into a new recession.
If long-term public opinion on Obamacare is tied to long- term public opinion of Obama, it may wind up polling a lot better in 2020 than it does in 2015.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.