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Paradox? What Paradox? Health Care “Wins” Come When There Are Immediate Benefits, Not Distant Promises

Now that's a paradox! (photo: Arenamontanus on Flickr)

There has been a lot of talk about the supposed “Obama Paradox.” It’s the idea that President Obama is raking up “wins,” signing into law big bills with fancy names (regardless of whether they will actually do what they need to), yet Democrats are still dropping in the polls. A big part of this problem is clearly the poor economy. No matter what accomplishments Democrats can claim, as long as official unemployment is around 10 percent and not dropping, polls will be poor. When addressing this paradox, it is important to realize that from a political perspective, one of the Democrats’ biggest “wins,” health care reform, is so currently ineffective, it’s almost as if they didn’t pass a new law at all.

Sure, Democrats passed a big bill with the fancy title of “health care reform,” but in practice, they passed a promise actually to pass health care reform in a few years. The new law doesn’t do much until four years from now. Until 2014, the number of people with insurance won’t noticeably increase.

Passing a law for political purpose with few short-term effects is a symbolic win. No one should be surprised that there was no boast about getting a “win” for passing a law that’s broadly unpopular, riled its opponents and was marked by ugly, slow compromise, highly disappointing much of the Democratic base. The matter is made worse by the fact that the top issue for voters is jobs, not health care. There is no immediate benefit for regular voters, and most of the debate time was spent on how to solve a second-tier issue several years in the future.

I don’t believe many voters choose their candidate based on these legislative “wins.” They vote based on whether they see improvements around them as a result of what the party in power did. . . . From this on-the-ground perspective, asking, “How is it affecting me and my neighbors?” there really is no new health care law. People vote based on results, not vague expectations about the future impact of complex laws.

If, instead of delaying benefits, the Democrats had significantly expanded coverage right away, it would be a different manner. If the bill worked as Democrats claimed, and millions of Americans were getting new health insurance or help affording their health insurance, yet the Democrats kept dropping in the polls, that would be a paradox. Democrats would have delivered to improve Americans’ lives in a tangible way and then not seen a political improvement. That would be a paradox.

Passing a law that does nothing and not seeing any improvement in the polls as a result is not a paradox. It is fully predictable outcome. If Democrats want to get political credit for doing something big, they need to do it now, not promise that what they did will start dealing with the problem several years from now. The only real paradox is that a bunch of politicians were so politically inept, they did not understand the way to make a new law popular is to have it provide big, immediate benefits for regular voters. Democrats need to figure out how they allowed themselves to spend months on gaining a pretty CBO score instead of working to get better health coverage to more voters as quickly as possible.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at