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Judging Obamacare: A Plus For President Obama, But A Minus For Candidate Obama

In this March 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House. (AP)

In this March 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House. (AP)

The Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare was a much needed boost for the president after a month of bad political news. And it prevented what would have been a disaster — loss of his signature achievement. But for candidate Obama it’s a different story.

Here’s why the SCOTUS ruling will be a net minus for Obama politically.

More galvanizing for the GOP: The response of Obama supporters was to celebrate the court ruling, but the response of Republicans was to mobilize. Celebrations wind down, but mobilizations often grow in intensity.

For the GOP, opposition to Obamacare is truly unifying and energizing. From the conservative perspective, it represents something genuinely frightening: a government takeover of health care, ever-increasing spending, endless regulations, higher taxes, less innovation in medical technology, more intrusion by bureaucrats in private decision-making… Those fears will not dissipate in the next four months. If anything, after massive advertising and presidential debates, the issue will be even more potent in motivating conservatives to turn out in November. We saw this in the 2010 elections when the GOP won control of the U.S. House and had impressive gains in governorships, legislative seats and other offices.

Dems changing the subject: If talk shows are any indication, the Obama administration will not try to repackage and promote Obamacare. White House chief of staff Jack Lew stressed that the issue was now decided and it was time to move on… or, rather, move back, to the economy. If Obama strategists prefer to talk about the stagnant economy, that’s a sign they see Obamacare as an issue that does not help win undecided voters.

Tricky, toxic taxes: Some believe Chief Justice John Roberts did the GOP a huge favor by ruling that the Obamacare mandate was a tax. That was the opposite of what Obama had claimed — he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he absolutely rejected that notion. Conservatives are now pointing out numerous tax hikes hidden in the 2,700 page law, including many that hit the middle class. That violates Obama’s promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Obama strategists realize he could be viewed like former President George H. W. Bush who said, “Read my lips: no new taxes” but then signed off on raising taxes. This could be particularly unpopular because many voters understand that in a sluggish economy, tax hikes have a depressing effect.

It’s the economy, stupid: Renewed debate about Obamacare as a burden on small business makes the issue less about health care and more about the bad economy. Voters realize that 2,700 pages worth of new regulations, bureaucracy, taxes, penalties and mandates can’t help but hamper job creation. They understand that small merchants don’t have the staff to decipher endless edicts.

Swing states were swinging to Obama: Another reason the Obama campaign doesn’t want to spend time and money explaining Obamacare is that they think they’ve got a more potent issue working for them in swing states: attacking Romney’s business record.  They don’t want to play defense — trying to promote an unpopular law — when it’s more effective to play offense.

Personality can trump policy: Another reason Obama strategists won’t invest much in promoting Obamacare is that they prefer to make this contest more a choice of personalities than policies. They realize that the more likable candidate for president usually wins, and polls show that Obama is considered more likable than Romney.

A more complicated message: Messaging in the final months of a presidential campaign comes down to sound-bites and 30-second commercials. Explaining and defending Obamacare is not an easy proposition. You can cite a few provisions that most people will support and the good intention of covering people who have no insurance coverage. But it’s easier to make a succinct case against Obamacare — 2,700 pages, new taxes, more bureaucracy, endless regulations, burden on small business, bad for the economy, government coming between you and medical professionals…

Higher stakes: As Romney observed, the court ruling makes clear that if you want to repeal and replace Obamacare you have to replace Obama. Ratcheting up the importance of this election makes the contest more of a referendum on Obama policies. Why does that help Romney? Because a huge majority of voters say they believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

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  • Mark from Danvers, MA

    Todd, I hope you are mistaken that the Dems are trying to change the subject, because I don’t think changing the subject ever works.  Obama should make promoting it his highest priority and I hope he does.  All he has to do is point to Massachusetts where the mandate has led to 98% of people being insured – and the reform is popular.  This is the equation he has to sell:

    Fewer uninsured = Fewer people getting their primary care in an ER, and more getting necessary preventive care = lower overall health care costs and better quality health care in the long run

    I think that can be explained.

  • Mark from Danvers, MA

    With all of the focus on the mandate, I think most people don’t really know what else is in the 2700 pages (including myself).  What are some of the endless regulations and the burden on small businesses that the GOP oppose?  

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