Tennis players make a distinction between forced and unforced errors. President Obama’s failure to provide sufficient funds in 2009 to boost employment was a forced error – it’s unlikely he could have gotten a trillion-plus spending bill through Congress. But Obama’s failure to make good on the promise of the Affordable Care Act is an unforced error – and the public is unlikely to forgive or forget it.
The first, and most obvious, effect will be on the Democrats’ political prospects in 2014 and perhaps even in 2016. Whatever advantage the Democrats received from the Republican shutdown, or from Republican machinations in state legislatures, has been erased by the specter of cancelled insurance policies and malfunctioning web pages. According to the Huffington Post’s polling averages, Democrats went from a tie in early August to a five point advantage in mid- October in the generic Congressional polls. That was a result of the public blaming the Republicans for the shutdown. But since then, the Democratic advantage has been falling and is now only 2.4 percent – which, given Republican advantages of incumbency and districting, is not enough to retake the House in 2014.
There are also warning signs in Senate races, where Democrats in 2014 have to defend 20 seats and the Republicans only 13. One race the Democrats need to win is in North Carolina, where Kay Hagan is up for re-election. According to Public Policy Polling, Hagan was leading her Republican challengers by eight points in August. Hagan’s advantage appeared to be tied to voters’ unhappiness with the state’s Republican administration. But this week, PPP’s polling showed Hagan tied with her challengers. PPP’s Tom Jensen blames Hagan’s ominous showing on the Obamacare rollout:
It seems likely that the difficulties with the rollout of Obamacare are helping to make life more difficult for Hagan. It's always been unpopular in North Carolina and currently 38% of voters say they approve of it to 48% who disapprove, numbers pretty consistent with what we've found over the years. But what's really hurting Democrats is its being back in the news- 69% of voters say its rollout has been unsuccessful so far to only 25% who deem it a success. 49% say the rollout has been 'very unsuccessful.' Republicans (87%) and independents (75%) are pretty unanimous in their sentiment that the Obamacare launch hasn't gone well but even among Democrats only 41% give it positive ratings to 52% who think it's been problematic.
Democratic candidates are already underdogs in three states where Democratic incumbents are retiring -- Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Hagan’s woes could carry over to Democratic incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska, and even in Michigan and Iowa. And if Democrats lose the Senate as well as the House in 2014, Obama will have to play defense for his remaining two years. Any chance of passing new legislation or fixing old, including Obamacare, will be lost. And if Republican Congressional leaders aren’t hamstrung by the Tea Party right, they can force Obama into unpopular vetos, as a Democratic Congressional majority did to George H.W. Bush in his last two years.
The second, and more far-reaching, effect will be on Americans’ support for government social and economic programs. Since the country’s founding, Americans have always had an abiding distrust of the federal government. In the country’s first fifty years, that probably had a progressive effect by accelerating Westward economic expansion, but after the Civil War, business and banking leaders exploited this sentiment to block attempts to protect workers and consumers; later, the appeal to state’s rights was used to oppose civil rights laws.
It has taken panics, depressions, wars and social upheaval to get Congress to adopt social and economic reforms. At all other times, the publics’ distrust of government, as reinforced by business, has carried the day. Bill Clinton discovered that out in his first term when he tried to pass a national healthcare program. Obama succeeded in passing a health care bill in 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession. But if Obamacare doesn’t work as promised, then its failure will have reinforced for a generation the argument against any government initiatives. Reform will be dead – whether it’s to fix immigration, healthcare, or the growing gap between rich and poor.
There are already clear warning signs. In the Gallup surveys of public trust in government, Americans’ confidence in the federal government already hit an all-time low in September. Indications are that it has continued to fall. This lack of confidence initially reflected disillusionment with Congress over the Republican shutdown, but the Obamacare’s current problems will deepen the public’s distrust of government. In 1828, perhaps, such distrust a rising farm economy that needed the kind of easy credit that a national bank was unwilling to provide. But in 2013, it will doom the country to inaction.
The Obama administration still has a chance to turn this situation around, but it doesn’t have long. George W. Bush eventually got the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the ground in the New Orleans after Katrina, but the damage to Bush’s political reputation lingered on. If there are still stories of snafus with the Affordable Care Act six months from now, the Democrats are going to suffer the consequences in November 2014. And the country could suffer for years to come.