May 27, 2013

Look, the Affordable Care Act is unpopular! After all, a new CNN poll finds 43 percent of respondents support Obamacare, while 54 percent oppose it.

Look, the Affordable Care Act is popular after all! Or at least government intervention to achieve universal health insurance is popular. Yes, 54 percent oppose the ACA, but almost half of those think it’s not liberal enough.

Wait — those can’t both be right, can they? The answer is more basic: Neither of them are. Conservatives convinced by this poll’s headline number that everyone hates Obamacare are wrong; so are liberals convinced that everyone really loves it are wrong, too.

What’s far more likely is that most people simply don’t have strong views of a law that they know little about and that has all sorts of components. In such situations, the answers people give to pollsters are apt to be reflections of their feelings about the parties, or the president, or perhaps the last thing they’ve heard about the law. There’s no reason to believe that those answers will predict how anyone will feel about the law once it’s actually implemented, or how (if at all) it will affect future elections.

As far as ideology is concerned, what one can really read from the polling on the Affordable Care Act is that most people are not strongly ideological. They’ll readily agree that government should do more to make sure that people have good, cheap, quality, health care … but they’ll also agree that government shouldn’t do too much, and they are spooked by talk of a “government takeover.”

In the long run, what will really matter is whether the various programs included in the ACA actually work. If they do, they’ll be impossible to repeal (although fights over, for example, subsidy levels will become standard political fights). If implementation goes badly — if the exchanges are impossible to navigate, or large employers really do suddenly stop offering health insurance as a benefit — then new changes won’t take long.

Either way, it won’t really matter what people thought they were going to get in the many long months before the law was fully implemented. So if you want to know what people will think of Obamacare next year, follow the news on implementation — not the current polls.