YOUNG: Obamacare’s sinking popularity

Democrats’ political survival could depend on abandoning ship

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Considering its political cost, the Affordable Care Act is anything but affordable for President Obama. The president and Democrats are finding out the hard way that stark partisan policy divides can be very dangerous when things go badly. As bad as things are now, they could very well get worse because there is no politically simple way for the administration to handle Obamacare.

How bad things are going for Mr. Obama can be seen from his approval ratings. According to Rasmussen polling, the president’s total approval-disapproval rating has fallen from a positive, 52 percent to 47 percent on Oct. 1, the day of the federal government shutdown, to a negative, 45 percent to 54 percent on Nov. 27. For those registering strong approval-disapproval, the split is far worse — going from 30 percent-37 percent on Oct. 1 to 20 percent-43 percent on Nov. 27.

Those are precipitous drops by any measure. However, in a political context, they look even worse. When Mr. Obama suffered his worst political defeat — on Nov. 2, 2010, when Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 in the House in the midterm elections — Mr. Obama’s total approval-disapproval was 48 percent-51 percent, and his strong approval-disapproval was 30 percent-45 percent — both better than today’s.

Well below those benchmarks, the end still isn’t in sight for several reasons.

Obamacare is not a policy problem confined to one region or one group. Its problems are extensive, spreading nationwide. The law encompasses America’s entire health care system — roughly one-sixth of the nation’s economy — and something that touches most Americans in some form. Policy and political problems on that scale are about as big as they get.

We are also still early into Obamacare’s implementation. So far, it’s been characterized by canceled policies, increased premiums, a failed website and low enrollment. What happens when things really get going, and the extent of Obamacare is vastly larger and includes medical procedures, penalties and reimbursements?

If passengers are seasick when a boat has just left the dock, imagine what how they will feel out on the open ocean.

For all these reasons, it is not surprising that Obamacare’s standing has fallen along with Mr. Obama’s own. According to another Rasmussen poll released Nov. 25, the new health care law reached its highest unfavorability rating this year — 58 percent. Only 36 percent had a favorable view of Obamacare and strongly held opinions about the law ran against it, 46 percent-17 percent.

Amid all this bad news, it is almost hard to believe things could get worse — but they easily could. Despite all the negatives arising from the law itself, its political impact presents the administration with perhaps an even tougher conundrum.

Obamacare is one of the starkest partisan policy splits of recent memory. Canceling Obamacare now would be a bald admission of failure — not just of the policy, but of the administration itself. That would not only validate his opponents’ united opposition to it, but alienate his supporters who staked everything to join him in its enactment.

The White House cannot simply walk away from Obamacare now, as though it were still simply a legislative proposal. This is not just one accomplishment of this administration, it is its premier accomplishment.

To walk away from the law would be to walk away from the president who created it. To do so would be to risk alienating the Democrats’ rock-solid liberal base, their key constituency.

Even if Democrats did want to do this, the logistics themselves — like those of turning around an ocean liner — are neither simple nor swiftly implemented. It would take time to reach a point at which there seemed to be no political alternative to doing so.

With three years to go in this administration’s second term, there still seems to be plenty of time to either fix the problems or ride them out. However, with each passing day, it is becoming clearer how politically costly it is for the White House as it struggles to right this ship.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

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