The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How unpopular or popular is Obamacare?

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
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“Today, the constitutional conservatives in the House are keeping their word to our constituents and our nation to stand true to our principles, to protect them from the most unpopular law ever passed in the history of the country — Obamacare — that intrudes on their privacy and our most sacred right as Americans to be left alone.”

— Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), Sept. 20, 2013

“CNN, CNBC in separate polling show 59 — the same number in both polls — 59 percent of the American people support Obamacare, and even a larger number of people think the government shutdown is the worst idea that ever came along.”

— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sept. 24, 2013

In the fight over President Obama’s health care law, politicians love to toss around statistics that show either how popular it is — or is not.

But this pair of statements is truly head-spinning. How can the most unpopular law ever passed in the history of this country be supported by 59 percent of the American people? And do most Americans believe a government shutdown is really “the worst idea that came along”? Let’s take a look.

The Facts

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, became law without a single Republican vote, a fact that has hobbled it ever since. Generally, major changes in social policy, such as Social Security and Medicare, have thrived because they had big bipartisan margins on the final vote. Of course, the parties were much more ideologically diverse in those days, so perhaps such levels of bipartisanship are not possible now.

The Atlantic magazine this week published a fascinating chart showing that the most controversial laws of the last 100 years have been Obama’s stimulus and the health care law, because of that partisan divide.

In any case, Culberson’s assertion that no law was ever been more unpopular than Obamacare struck The Fact Checker as an unverifiable fact. First of all, sophisticated public polling did not really exist until after World War II, so how do we know whether earlier laws were unpopular?

Scott Clement, survey research analyst for The Washington Post’s Capital Insight, located a 1936 Gallup poll that found that 67 percent of Americans would not reinstate Prohibition. That indicated that Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933, had been fairly unpopular–probably more disliked than Obamacare.

Culberson came to the phone and freely admitted he was basing his assertion on, well, “instincts and common sense and my reading of history.” He said the most effective poll he could do was on the House floor, where he says he speaks to his colleagues and gets the pulse of the nation. Even Democrats, he claimed, in private conversations have told him that unions are upset, employers are complaining and constituents are unhappy.

OK, but most unpopular law in the history of the United States? A recent USA Today poll shows that 42 percent of Americans approve of the law, while 53 percent disapprove of it. That’s not great, but we immediately thought of an even more unpopular, recent law — the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988. This bipartisan bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, was intended to provide supplemental health care insurance for the elderly, but it also included a surtax on middle- and upper-income seniors.

The protests became so intense — check out this video of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) being chased down a Chicago street 20 years by angry senior citizens — that Congress quickly repealed the law. (This may be apocryphal, but supposedly an aide told him, “When you die, they will play this clip on television.”)

There was mass confusion among Americans about the law, but this statistic from a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that it had much less support than Obamacare — only 9 percent of older Americans said they liked the new benefit. Oddly, most Americans said they did not want to end it, but terrified members of Congress did so anyway.

When we related these statistics to Culberson, he said: “You may have got me.”  But then he brightened and said that as Obamacare is implemented, the dismay will only grow. “I am confident that Obamacare will be become the least popular bill in the history of the United States,” he said.

As for Reid’s statistics, they don’t add up too well either. Here’s what Reid said: “CNN, CNBC in separate polling show 59 — the same number in both polls — 59 percent of the American people support Obamacare, and even a larger number of people think the government shutdown is the worst idea that ever came along.”

An aide explained that CNBC had a poll that found “59 percent of Americans are opposed to defunding Obamacare if it means defaulting and shutting down the government.”  We see the 59 percent, but opposing to defunding is not the same as supporting the law. We also don’t see that they said that a government shutdown is the “worst idea that ever came along.”

As for  the CNN poll, published in May, it found that 59 percent of respondents favor health-care reform or oppose it because it is not liberal enough. Again, we see 59 percent, but this result is not the same as support for Obamacare, as it actually includes people who don’t like Obamacare because it does too little.

The actual support for the law, as written, was just 43 percent. But a more recent CNN poll, conducted in September, found that support had dropped to 39 percent. That’s 20 percentage points lower than what Reid claimed.

The Pinocchio Test

Politicians toss around claims such as “most unpopular” and “worst idea” at their peril. The fact remains that Obamacare is not nearly as unpopular as Culberson asserted, while not nearly as popular as Reid claimed. But it is certainly correct that the health-care law continues to suffer from relatively low public support — as does the gambit of shutting down the federal government in order to block it.

Both men earn Three Pinocchios.

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