April 8, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Obamacare Surprises and the Progress of the Present

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As Cornellians dozed their way through an awkwardly scheduled Spring Break, the nation continued its march towards “a more perfect union” in a somewhat more dramatic fashion than usual. The Affordable Care Act — whose “Obamacare” moniker will now immortalize the president it was initially meant to vilify — soared past the gleefully pessimistic predictions of its detractors as it reached 7.1 million enrollees by its March 31 deadline. In doing so, the ACA entrenched itself as a triumphant addition to the American social contract, and diluted the poisonous concoctions of propagandistic fears that have recently governed our politics.

In a political world ruled by Nate Silver’s algorithmic forecasts, there is little room for surprises in the American political landscape. Everyone aside from right-wing poll “truthers” expected an Obama victory in 2012 — just watch the awesome Netflix documentary, Mitt, to see how unsurprised the poor oligarch from Massachusetts (or is it Michigan?) was by his loss. Much of the political world already assumes that the Democratic nominee for 2016 will be a woman first introduced to them two and a half decades ago. Heated and important debates — from immigration reform to budgetary clashes to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire — are most times designated as failures before they even have a chance to begin. A data-driven age has exacerbated the all-too-human tendency to jump to conclusions on dynamic, still-unfolding issues.

And the most assumed assumption in all of recent American politics has been far and away the failure of the ACA.

Since the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov in October, even the most reasoned of pundits began to question the utility of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement. This assumption hatched dozens more: Obama’s presidency is over; the Democrats are doomed to face another shellacking in the 2014 midterms; the nation may not be “Ready for Hillary.” The list goes on. Yet now, with the rate of uninsured Americans dropping and the President declaring the ACA “here to stay,” those assumptions may begin to unravel.

The GOP — having stomached the “catastrophic” successes of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — is quaking in its cowboy boots as this latest improvement to our social safety net threatens to disprove the vehemently anti-government rhetoric of Republican luminaries. Even if the ACA does not help Democrats in 2014, by 2016 there may very well be 30 million Americans owing their health insurance to a program named after a Democrat. Obamacare, indeed.

How, then, was this years-old political assumption so profoundly rebuked? Yes, there was some willful ignorance involved; there are still those so trapped in their own echo chamber that they have convinced themselves that the enrollment numbers are fabricated. But the surprising success of the ACA signifies something more than the failure of sickly, rightwing delusions. The lies that nibbled away at the ACA had become so ingrained in the public discourse (the President, after all, is still disputing the existence of Sarah Palin’s death panels) that the mainstream media, from cable news all the way up to the mahogany-paneled chambers of the New Yorker, had to a certain extent formed a consensus that the ACA would be a failure. But it was not.

The explanation, though complex, lies in part with the clarifying, full-court public relations crusade that is encapsulated by the President’s appearance on Zach Galifinakis’s “Between the Two Ferns.” Though denounced as unpresidential by the well-heeled establishment, the sarcasm-riddled interview was instrumental in attracting young people to Healthcare.gov, ensuring a more robust and balanced pool of enrollees. This pop-culture appeal capped off an unorthodox advertising campaign that included a commercial with Jonah Hill and Adam Levine’s mothers and an Obama impersonator’s healthcare-centric rap. The President, in many ways, took his case directly to the Internet-dwelling masses. He cut through the assumptions and the noise, and — for the moment — he has won.

Two Sundays ago, Ithaca’s golden boy, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, appeared on Meet the Press and touted the ACA’s potential to free young people from the strain of economic uncertainty. His optimistic bromides about Republicans “looking backward” perhaps belie the complex political realities still clouding the Obamacare issue, but they prove that the reigning political assumptions around around the ACA have been allowed to change. This shows that even in a time of destructive Supreme Court decisions that muddy our politics with money, the vitriol of the political echo machine does not predetermine the direction of society. Even at the cost of a less-than-regal intersection of the president’s bully pulpit and a star from The Hangover, popular will is still not irrelevant.

Before Spring Break, a stirring op-ed by Bill Schechter ’68 discussed the proposal for a monument to three young martyrs (one of them a Cornellian) of 1964’s Freedom Summer. Fifty years later, with so many political outcomes seemingly predetermined by people far older and richer than us, it may seem as though this era of epic, progressive, grassroots change is something that can only be remembered by such a monument. But the unexpected success of the ACA — fueled largely by individuals willing to disregard the prognostications of elites — proves that America, even in a data-driven age of political predestination, can still surprise itself. And we Millennials should take this as proof of youth’s continued relevance — even if that relevance comes from seeing President Obama teased by Zach Galifinakis on YouTube.

It’s no Freedom Summer, but it’s a start.