As they have for months, conservatives are trumpeting polls showing Obamacare's difficulty in winning the hearts and minds of the American people. While The Hill reported "four years later, Democrats wait for ObamaCare popularity bounce," the far-right Townhall celebrated a spate of negative surveys, including a 53 to 41 disapproval score in the latest from Pew Research.
But the Republican schadenfreude crowd may be about to come down with a severe case of premature elation. After all, at this point in its bungled 2006 rollout, President Bush's Medicare Part D prescription drug plan was wildly unpopular among the seniors intended to benefit from it.
While Part D enjoys 90 percent support among the elderly today, that was certainly not the case during its open enrollment period in late 2005 and early 2006. As the chart above from the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals, it wasn't until June 2006 that the program recovered from its rocky start to attain evenly approval and disapproval. An April 2006 Gallup survey found the same dynamic, with Americans by 49 to 36 percent believing Bush's drug program was not working. The margin among those 65 and older was a staggering 20 points (53 to 33 percent).
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Their disdain for the Part D program was well-founded, even leaving aside the objection to the needlessly expensive program that delivered public dollars to private insurers while prohibiting the federal government from negotiating better prescription prices directly with pharmaceutical firms. As I summed it up elsewhere:
The new federal web site allowing people to compare plans and prices was delayed by weeks, while just 300 customer service reps manned the phones to help new enrollees. Yet over six million people immediately lost their coverage, while hundreds of thousands more would be refused treatment because of malfunctions in the computer systems linking providers and insurers. In response to the mushrooming crisis, governors in mostly Democratic states spent billions to continue coverage for their residents, while the President pleaded with insurance companies not to cut off their current policyholders. Nevertheless, the White House sided with insurers and rejected bipartisan calls to delay the enrollment deadline even as public approval plummeted to 25 percent. It's no wonder John Boehner called the rollout of the President's signature domestic policy achievement "horrendous."It's no wonder President Bush was silent about his greatest domestic policy achievement during his 2006 State of the Union address.
To be sure, the Medicare Part D to Affordable Care Act analogy isn't perfect. Obamacare is a larger, more complex and more systemic package of reforms than President Bush's drug plan. Oh, and one other thing. Unlike Republicans, Democrats didn't wage a four-year campaign to sabotage Medicare Part D. Instead, in Washington and in the states Democrats helped save Bush's faltering drug program in 2006 and, by shrinking the prescription "donut hole" for millions of American seniors, have improved it since. (To highlight just one contrast, many GOP-led states have tried to block the work of Obamacare "navigators," even though the same type of federally funded program—and even many of the same community groups—has helped seniors enroll in Medicare for over 20 years.)
Regardless, Republicans are rejoicing about the polling numbers for Obamacare, and are looking forward to this fall's enrollment period for businesses. Conservatives are especially gleeful about Kaiser data showing disapproval for the Affordable Care Act increasing among the uninsured. Sadly, the numbers show that the uninsured are against what they don't know: two-thirds weren't aware of the March 31 enrollment deadline and similar numbers said they know little to nothing about the health care exchanges where they were to apply for coverage.
To put it another way, while Obamacare isn't failing, Republican sabotage of it is working like a charm.
Working, that is, for now. As the Medicare Part D experience suggests, the picture could look a lot different by the end of the summer.