WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked for a national debate on health care, and he got his wish. The problem for the Democrats, and consequently for the president, is that the national debate is still going on.
Technically called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as the ACA and often described as Obamacare, the overhaul of the American health care system was signed into law almost exactly four years ago. And yet the debate rages on — and will continue to do so if Republican lawmakers, strategists and potential presidential candidates have their way.
Other issues in American life have persisted politically for more than four years — slavery, of course, monopolized the political debate for a third of a century, and Vietnam for a decade — but such endurance is rare, and in ordinary circumstances the likelihood of an issue with high political attention in April remaining at the top of the mind in November is very small.
The Republicans are wagering that health care will be different, and they surely take comfort in polls that show continuing public skepticism if not hostility toward the health care law. Overall, Americans disapprove of the 2010 act by a 54-to-43 margin, a range that in the Gallup poll has remained generally consistent since last fall.
It is true that disapproval of the health care law varies substantially by party identity. Look carefully at those Gallup numbers and you will see that Republicans are as much as 17 times more likely to disapprove of the law than are Democrats. That is a stunning figure but, given the contemporary political atmosphere, not out of synch with the polarized national conversation.
In ordinary times Democrats might actually take comfort from those findings. If the overall margin against the law were 11 points and their partisan rivals were 17 times more likely to oppose it than Democrats themselves, then there might be a glimmer of hope for them. But Gallup also tells us that independents are as much as five times more likely to oppose the law as Democrats. That’s trouble.