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?
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.