Two weeks after he was sworn in to office in January 2009, President Barack Obama was frank.
He said that if he didn’t deliver he would be “a one-term proposition.” He knew that as the nation’s first African-American president, millions were watching to see what he could and would deliver.
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Millions of others eagerly hoped against hope he would fail miserably. He was under the white-hot glare of the public to deliver the goods, or be quickly dumped as a presidential has-been.
New presidents always ride into office on the crest of both voter hopes and euphoria about the prospect of change and disgust at and voter fatigue with the former seat warmer in the White House. And new presidents just as quickly see their approval ratings dip or freefall.
It is easy to see why. They try to do too much too soon; promise not to do political business in the old ways; try to make too drastic legislative changes, or quickly reverse the bad old policies of their predecessor.
It was the fabled man on the white horse coming to the rescue. This was, of course, just that, fable. Real politics and an impatient public knock that storybook notion for a loop.
In Obama’s case, he gambled that his presidency would be a crowning success if he could beat back the fine-tuned, well-oiled and well-endowed health care industry juggernaut and get health care reform. That meant getting real health care reform through Congress and into law.
Only one president had been able to do that. That was Lyndon Johnson. He arm-twisted, browbeat, and out-smarted Congress and the health care industry to get Medicare. Johnson had won a landslide election victory in 1964, had monumental, hard-nosed political skills and had the reform spirit of the civil rights movement and a solid Democratic party behind him.
He had the wellspring of public sympathy after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Obama was not LBJ, politically. He had neither the times or Johnson’s massive mandate for change going for him.
Despite that, Obama eventually got a health care bill to sign. The Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010.
The law, though, remained shrouded in controversy. Progressives screamed that the bill was stripped of a public option, and was a deal laden with giveaways and concessions to the big pharmaceuticals. Republicans screamed louder that the law taxed and compelled far too many to get a costly, and maybe even unwanted, health care package.
That was one of the relentless attack points that the GOP dredged up in endless committee hearings, a Supreme Court challenge and dozens of votes to repeal the act. They all failed.
Obamacare stood the challenge for the very reasons that it became law. It provided tens of millions of Americans with access to a health plan, there would be subsidies for low-income persons to offset the costs, a half-million children would be covered under their parent’s plans, and millions of dollars would be allocated for research and testing.
It also established more than 1,000 new health care facilities in many rural and urban communities, and the National Health Service Corps workforce was tripled. Millions of elderly and disabled Americans covered under Medicare were now provided with no-cost access to health care preventive services.
Most important was that the millions of chronically uninsured and underinsured Americans for the first time had full access to health care. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the number of uninsured Americans would fall from 55 million to 31 million between 2010 and 2023. The proportion of the population with coverage would rise from 82 per cent to 92 per cent. That meant little to the GOP critics.
The GOP hit plan on Obamacare was always much more than a battle to scrap a health care plan that it reviled as flawed, failed and a big government intrusion into the lives of Americans. It was a crude and cynical political ploy to inflame millions of Americans and stoke hostility to Obama and the Democrats.
Polls, however, at the time of the fierce battles over Obamacare and afterwards consistently showed that while many Americans had deep concerns and even legitimate fears about the short-term effect of Obamacare, they never wanted it scrapped. The GOP, and later, GOP presidential contender Donald Trump’s drumbeat hit campaign on Obamacare didn’t erase that fact.
Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, LBJ and Bill Clinton, tried, to varying degrees, to get a national health care bill into a law. They failed. Obama didn’t.
However, the danger signs were there. Trump repeatedly parroted the standard Republican attack line during the 2016 presidential campaign; that Obamacare should be repealed and replaced. The first pronouncement he made after his election was that he would move quickly to take action on it.
However, it wasn’t that simple. And Trump knew it. He immediately reversed gears and hedged that there were some parts of Obamacare that may need to stay in place. That was back-door recognition of a hard-political fact.
By the time Trump took office, more than 20 million persons had been added to the health care roles under Obamacare, and just lopping them off would court political disaster. The brutal political reality was that Obamacare had made a difference in the lives of many Americans.
Despite Trump and the GOP’s bluster about junking it, the chances were good that the Affordable Care Act would stand up under the GOP assault. That was a lasting testament to Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Obama Legacy” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.