Was Obamacare Worth It? Some Democrats Think Not.

I’m up today at US News with a new post that serves as a sequel of sorts to an earlier post I wrote discussing the impact of Obama’s policy agenda on Democrats’ loss of control of Congress. In recent days Democrats such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer have openly questioned whether Obamacare was worth the political price paid for its passage.  Drawing on data compiled by Middlebury College student Tina Berger, I showed that during Obama’s six years as president Democrats had lost more than 25% of the seats they had started with when Obama first took office. That was the second greatest proportion of seats lost, exceeded only by Eisenhower, during a president’s time in office during the post-Hoover modern presidential era. A primary cause of the loss of partisan support, I suggested, was Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite its controversial nature and uneven political support.

In response, the New York Times Brendan Nyhan wondered whether the erosion of Democratic support might vary across the two congressional chambers, with losses greater in either the House or the Senate. The short answer is no – he’s lost about equal support across his presidency in the Senate and the House, at least in terms of modern rankings, as the following graphs constructed by Berger indicate.  Here’s the percentage of House seats lost:

HouseAnd here’s the Senate seats lost:


SenateClearly Obama has been an equal opportunity president.

Mo Fiorina, meanwhile, pointed out that rather than speculate regarding why Democrats lost so many seats, I could have cited some research that points directly to Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform as a primary cause of Democrats losing control of the House and, I would add, contributing to the loss of the Senate too.  In my U.S. News post, I make amends by delving a bit more deeply into that research.  The gist of it suggests that health care and climate change legislation might have cost Democrats some 20-40 House seats in 2010.

Sill, this is not necessarily meant to suggest that pursuing health care reform was a mistake. As I discuss in the U.S. News post, the key issue is whether Obama, in deciding whether to embark on health care reform, fully anticipated the political cost his party would pay for doing so. This is the crucial point the late, great presidency scholar Richard Neustadt makes in his classic work Presidential Power: presidents ought not to be judged solely on their ability to achieve a treasured legislative objective. They must also be assessed on whether they understood the likely consequences of achieving that objective on their future bargaining prospects. Did Obama understand that in pursuing health care reform he would likely cost his party its House majority and, perhaps, control of the Senate as well? These are not easy questions to answer, of course; when making these decisions presidents are operating under conditions of great uncertainty. Surely Obama could not have anticipated the botched rollout of Obamacare, for instance. Still, Neustadt’s analysis suggests that these are questions any president must ask before embarking down the legislative road of significant policy change. In the case of health care reform, it’s not clear to me whether Obama tried hard enough to find an answer.


  1. Matt:

    You ask if Obama understood the political consequences; I ask whether or not he really cared about anything except his own reelection.

  2. Shelly,

    Political scientists have made a lot of theoretical headway by modeling political actors as single-minded seekers of reelection, so I don’t necessarily disagree with your premise. Even so, don’t you think his reelection prospects would be bolstered by retaining a partisan majority in Congress through which to pass his preferred legislation? Or are you saying all he cared about was health care reform and that, if passed, that would be enough to insure his reelection?

  3. Perhaps I should have said that he is such a narcissist that all he really cares about is himself.

    Throwing Congressmembers and Senators under the bus does not seem to faze him one iota.

    The next two years promise to be bumpy ones; he has set a course to follow what he has imagined the two thirds who didn’t vote have mandated him to pursue.

    I somehow doubt that the new Congress will sit still for his antics; up to now, Harry Reid has had his back; no more.

    If what we survive makes us stronger, I suspect we will indeed be a stronger nation.

  4. I know this is an old post now, but this relates to a question I’ve been posing to my students this semester. Obama seems to have paid the biggest price for this type of decision, but the last three presidents have engaged in the same type of “go big or go home” legislating, tackling controversial issues that risk backlash early in their terms. Clinton on healthcare. Bush, after his reelection, on Social Security reform. Obama on healthcare. Obama, of course, was the only one of the three who succeeded, so saying he paid the biggest price is probably overstatement.

    It’s a strategy that explicitly contradicts Neustadt’s strategy of conserving your power prospects. Recent presidents don’t seem to be taking his advice. Should they?

    The question that I’ve been pondering, and putting to my students, is does Neustadt’s view still hold, particularly given today’s level of polarization. Facing a polarized Congress and the almost certain prospect of losing seats in the coming midterm, why not spend political capital right away? What’s the point in investing for the future?

    The question of whether Obamacare was worth it comes down to the counterfactual of what Obama might have accomplished had he not pursued health care reform. As Brady, Fiorina, and Wilkins point out in the article you cite, that’s a very difficult counterfactual to identify. What would that have been? Would a list of smaller, potentially bipartisan accomplishments over 8 years add up to the value of one big partisan goal like health care reform?

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