The Washington Post

The uninsured don’t like Obamacare. But seniors didn’t like Medicare Part D — and signed up anyway

Of late, there've been a rash of bad poll results for Obamacare (and also a few good ones). The most interesting comes from a New York Times/CBS poll showing that a majority of the uninsured disapprove of the new health law. That's potentially significant, as it seems logical that the uninsured won't sign up for a program they don't like. Or will they?

You might, but there aren't that many of you. (Mark Wilson / GETTY IMAGES)

These numbers echo the rollout of Medicare Part D. At launch, the program was less popular even than Obamacare. In May 2006 -- five months after Part D launched -- a CBS/New York Times poll found 48 percent of seniors said they didn't plan to join, and 81 percent said the George W. Bush administration should extend the deadlines. A Gallup poll from about the same time showed 53 percent of seniors flatly believed the law wasn't working.

But the program didn't fail. Mark McClellan, who led that rollout effort, recalled that "by the spring of 2006 most seniors signed up. Every senior had heard about this program or knew people in it. And everyone was familiar with the delayed enrollment penalty. Those things together led to a big bump before open enrollment ended." Today Medicare Part D is widely considered a success. More than 90 percent of seniors say they're happy with it.

Obamacare could take a different path. But we won't know that until the individual mandate actually begins to bite in 2014. Past experience with these kinds of programs suggests people say they won't sign up until the penalty looms and they do.

Meanwhile, The Plum Line's Greg Sargent points out that though Obamacare is unpopular, the idea of giving everyone health insurance is incredibly popular. Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne Jr. calls this a "paradox".

I see this more simply. Of course Obamacare is unpopular! It's an unpopular law that's been rolled out incredibly badly! Pretty much everything anyone has heard about Obamacare over the last three months has been either negative ("it's broken") or terrifying ("it's canceling millions of insurance plans"). The good news, such as it exists, is only good news in a soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations way. "Most people can now purchase health insurance on HeathCare.Gov most of the time" is not a success. It's a failure that's moving in the right direction.

It's totally understandable why people who support universal health insurance in theory don't support what they've seen so far in Obamacare. If a pollster asked me whether I approve of the program as it stands right now, I'd say no, too.

Polls are reflections of reality. And the reality of Obamacare remains pretty bad. It's improving, to be sure. But not so quickly, so totally, or so visibly that anyone should expect the American people to be rapidly revising their opinions. Obamacare should be unpopular right now. President Obama should be unpopular right now. That will change if and when the reality changes. But not before then.

Polls can, themselves, lead to changes in the reality -- particularly when they come before elections. But the crucial bit of context for these poll numbers is that there's no election tomorrow. Or next month. Or five months after that. The next election is in 2014, and Republicans aren't going to get anywhere near enough seats to repeal Obamacare over a presidential veto. The next election where Republicans could conceivably repeal or dramatically alter the Affordable Care Act is 2016. That means the reality of Obamacare has until at least January 2017 to change.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Don’t be ‘that’ sports parent | On Parenting
Miss Manners: The technology's changed, but the rules are the same
A flood of refugees from Syria but only a trickle to America
Play Videos
John Lewis, 'Marv the Barb' and the politics of barber shops
Kids share best advice from mom
Using Fitbit to help kids lose weight
Play Videos
This man's job is binge-watching for Netflix
Transgender swimmer now on Harvard men's team
Portland's most important meal of the day
Play Videos
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
How much can one woman eat?
The signature drink of New Orleans
Next Story
Brad Plumer · December 19, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.