Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out some of the similarities (which he carefully points out does not mean the identity ) between the political impacts of Obamacare and the Iraq War. Over on twitter, liberal writer Jamelle Bouie has argued that voters will largely judge President Obama based on economic growth and job creation. Both arguments have merit. You basically have a race between increasing GDP and an improving labor market on the one hand, and cancelled policies, rising premiums, narrower provider networks, and an implementation process that has gone from the chaotic to the surreal on the other. 2013 saw the economy grow and the unemployment rate drop, but Obama’s approval ratings have fallen sharply over the course of the year. Maybe this week’s strong GDP numbers will be the beginning of a turnaround Obamacare so far has done Obama more damage than the economy has gone him good.
Iraq is a decent starting point in talking about how the effects of a growing economy can be swamped by other issues. Obama’s decline during his fifth year is similar to that of Bush’s and both presidents had growing economies. The economy was better under Bush, but, in the aftermath of the Clinton boom, public expectations of the economy were also higher than in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate was under 5% during 2006 even as President Bush’s approval ratings collapsed.
Obama’s honest and trustworthy rating has gone underwater. This is a place where the parallel between Bush and Obama is strong. With Bush, it wasn’t just the lack of WMDs. If the invasion had been a swift success and American troops had withdrawn within a year from a stable and (somewhat) democratic Iraq, the failure to find WMDs would have had modest political impact. Bush was reelected in 2004 despite the failure to find WMDs and even as the insurgency was ramping up. The big political problem in Iraq (which is of course dwarfed by the humanitarian problem) was the failure of the occupation from Summer 2003 to December 2006 despite Bush administration assurances that American troops would step back as Iraqi security forces stepped up.
It was only after the failure of those assurances that the normally persuadable fraction of the population tuned Bush out. Partisans might believe that Bush “lied”, but for people who were not emotionally invested in hating Republicans, there is a sense in which it didn’t matter if Bush had lied. Bush had been very wrong for very long on an issue of central importance, and they were never going to trust him again. That is why the 2007 Petraeus testimony to Congress on conditions in Iraq was so weirdly important. The metrics could have been delivered by anybody, but the Bush White House lacked the credibility to win over anyone who needed convincing.
The Obama administration’s problem is both bigger and smaller. They have taken the biggest hit on Obama’s promise that “if you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.” When you strip away all of the administration’s misdirections, their defense amounts to they only lied to about five million policy holders and not most people. That defense doesn’t seem to be working. Obama’s decline on trust doesn’t just come from people whose families have had their insurance policies cancelled anymore than Bush’s decline came exclusively from people who had lost a relative or friend in Iraq. Even though most people had not gotten a cancellation, Obama’s willingness to lie (for years) to millions of people over an issue as important as their health insurance policies meant that Obama would lie about anything if it suited him.
If the economy continues to improve, maybe Obama can rebuild trust with the median voter. He could at least say he was able to finally get the car out of the ditch. On the other hand, Obamacare’s implementation problems seem to be adding up and those problems could continue to dissipate whatever goodwill he gets from an improving economy. I’m personally rooting for strong GDP growth well into the future, but President Obama is also in the position that he has spent down a lot of his public trust on Obamacare. He better hope we don’t have even a mild economic downturn in his second term, because he will face a more skeptical public than if he had been more honest about selling a more modest health care reform.