People aren’t too happy these days, and I can understand why. After all, the economy’s still a mess, unemployment is incredibly high, and the government doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it–unless you count blaming each other. But history can be pretty instructive in times like these. Let’s start with one fairly standard event: The President’s approval rating is almost always highest when he/she gets elected, and declines over his/her time in office. There are some exceptions, but generally this is the way it goes, and it really is based on what statisticians call “regression to the mean”–what you might think of as the “nowhere to go but down” phenomenon.
The person who wins the election is the one people like. After all, who would vote for someone they didn’t like? Now, it’s an uphill battle that those who didn’t like the person to begin with are actually going to be convinced that they are doing a wonderful job and they were originally mistaken in not voting for them to begin with. Case in point, you won’t find too many McCain supporters out there who love what Obama’s doing. At the same time, the people who liked the person and voted for them already have high expectations. If the President does a great job, those expectations can be met, and the approval rating can stay high, but it isn’t likely to increase–for the reasons just mentioned. Yet people who originally voted for the President can find that their expectations aren’t met, and their support for the President will go down. This is just the way it goes, and the longer you’re in office, the more chances you have to let someone down.
The exception has very little to do with the President and more to do with circumstances, like the economy. Like it or not, the President is not the sole–or even the greatest–determinant of the state of our economy. However, that doesn’t stop us from wanting someone to blame when things aren’t going well–or reward when things are going great. History bears that out, too. Obama will probably lose the 2012 election–but it will most likely be because of a stagnant economy rather than anything else. That’s why we keep voting for “change.” Things were getting bad during the Bush presidency, so America voted for “change.” The Obama administration hasn’t magically fixed the economy, so in the midterms America voted for “change.” In 2012, if things haven’t improved, we’ll vote for “change” again. Nevermind that in a two-party system, two “change” cycles get you right back where you started. If the economy’s bad, why not vote for the Texas governor who was actually toying with the idea of his state succeeding from the Union?
But that’s just one example of how history repeats itself without us paying it much mind. The second, and my focus today, is Medicare and what it should tell us about the Affordable Care Act. You see, Medicare wasn’t popular when it was enacted. Ezra Klein mentions this briefly here. You can read more about the history here. Yes, even the actor–about to turn politician–Ronald Reagan went on record calling Medicare “socialized medicine” on behalf of the AMA. (As an aside, the funny thing about that is that Medicare is actually much closer to socialized medicine than anything contained in the Affordable Care Act.) Today, however, people love Medicare. In fact, they love it so much that they protest with signs telling the government to keep its hands off the program. They have seemingly forgotten that Medicare is one of the largest government programs in the country. This happened over time, but it is instructive.
The sentiments the public originally felt toward Medicare seem strikingly similar to the sentiments that much of the public currently feels toward the Affordable Care Act. Now, it is entirely possible that that sentiment will persist, that the ACA will be repealed after the GOP sweeps the 2012 elections, and the similarities with Medicare will end right there. However, it is also possible that the Democrats will retain enough seats to block repeal, that the public will slowly come to understand and appreciate the ACA, and that when Congress tries to pass a health reform law in 2060, people will be out in the streets holding signs that say “Keep the Government’s Hands Off the Exchange!” If that sounds highly unlikely to you, all I can say is, it may be, but pretty much that exact scenario has happened before. It isn’t likely to change your feelings about the law one way or another right now, but it is worth thinking about.