Count me among the few who don’t believe that this week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” and whatever ruling the justices announce, will be pivotal in determining President Obama’s fate in November. Notwithstanding the natural tendency for journalists to breathlessly cite everything (and every primary night!) as hugely consequential, some issues have already run their course with the public. President Obama’s two-year-old health care law has already been fully litigated in the court of public opinion, with a split and very close decision: A plurality think it and the individual mandate were bad, a handful of points ahead of those who approved of both.
These attitudes are fairly stable. This is unlikely to be a topic that dominates conversations around the water cooler, grocery aisle, or backyard fence. Attitudes toward Obama’s health care law are already baked into the cake of how people perceive Obama himself, his performance, and whether he should be reelected. An extremely high percentage of those who disapprove of the law also disapprove of him. Similarly, an extremely high percentage of those who approve of the law also approve of him. The few who don’t have opinions are more likely to be swayed by other factors. A large majority of Americans already have some form of health insurance coverage. A majority of those people are reasonably satisfied with whatever they have. Their votes in November certainly aren’t hanging in the balance.
A Supreme Court decision is unlikely to change those views of whether the law is good or bad. Obamacare has become a political Rorschach test: People read into it what they want to. The law’s enactment was either a dangerous overreach that would destroy liberty, free enterprise, and our current health care system, or it was badly needed, though imperfect, and will do far more good than bad. But again, it all goes back to the larger question of how voters see Obama.
Americans vote with their pocketbooks. A far more important factor in determining whether voters decide to renew Obama’s contract for another four years is whether they see his stewardship of the economy as a success. Has he done as well as anyone could realistically have done? Or did he have other priorities—like health care—that seemed to merit more attention than dealing with a worsening economic downturn and dramatically escalating unemployment?
With each passing week we will get a new crop of statistics that will provide clues as to how the economy is faring. Will the narrative be a continuation of the improvement seen since last fall? Or, will this spurt have been more temporary, bumping against headwinds—in the form of high energy prices, a global economic downturn, and recession in Europe—preventing that pattern from continuing through the November election?
How will the economy perform over the seven months between now and the election? Upcoming economic reports are likely to answer the question about whether Obama’s presidency will be judged as a success. The Conference Board on Tuesday will release its latest survey of consumer confidence. On Friday, the Thomson/Reuters/University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment will be released. These are the two most closely watched measures of how Americans see the economy now, and what their expectations are for the coming months. A week from Friday, the March unemployment figures will be reported. Analysts will look to see whether the improvement in the jobless picture seen over the winter will continue or whether it has leveled off. Some speculate that rapidly rising gasoline prices may ease sooner, rather than skyrocketing through the spring and summer, as many have forecasted. Which forecasts turn out to be right will be hugely important both politically and for the economy. Up until now, much of the spike in gas prices has been offset by unusually low heating bills paid during the fourth-warmest winter on record, and the warmest since 1990.
The Wall Street research firm ISI Group, as of Oct. 3, had charted 16 out of 20 weeks as having more negative economic news and developments than positive ones. Since October 10, it has marked 25 weeks in a row of more positive than negative news and developments. But it has noted that the positive mix last week was not particularly convincing—a possible sign that the recent upbeat pattern may be breaking up.
Right now, a fair number of voters sit on the fence when it comes to assessing Obama’s performance on the economy. They are disappointed that he didn’t do better, but they are unwilling to pass final judgment. How the economy fares in the coming months will determine which side of that fence these voters decide to come down on.
This article appears in the March 27, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.