Why the US Supreme Court decision on health care helps Obama politically

by Alan Cohen

Much of the news coverage about the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obama’s health care law has focused on how the policy victory may hurt Obama’s re-election hopes. The standard argument is that 1) Obamacare is unpopular; 2) now, the only way to stop it is to repeal it; so 3) many people will vote for Mitt Romney and the Republicans in order to achieve this. While there is debate as to whether this effect will be strong or not, I have seen no one arguing that the decision will help Obama. So I’ll make that case.

The standard argument has a number of problems with it. First, as Charles Blow showed yesterday, Obamacare is not all that unpopular, and not in the ways that people think. Many of the people who don’t like it think it didn’t go far enough, and they are hardly likely to support Romney. According to the poll Blow cites, only 27% of people polled said they wanted the Supreme Court to completely overturn the law AND that the reason for this was because the law went to far.

Second, while opinion polls on Obamacare have remained relatively stable since it was enacted, I think they reflect more confusion than opposition among many people. The law is immensely complicated, and many people on both the left and right seem uncertain what the long-term effects will be. Because so many Americans inherently distrust government, a large complicated new law is bound to be somewhat unpopular when you ask people to choose a side: for or against. In reality, most people are probably apprehensive, but their opposition is not necessarily strong enough to be a major factor in how they vote. Those who have hardened positions are unlikely to be voters whose votes were in play anyway.

Third and most interestingly, the argument that this will hurt Obama assumes that voters behave rationally. If voters are completely rational in the way that economics models assume, they will consider that they don’t like Obamacare, that they would therefore like it repealed, and that they will therefore be somewhat more likely to vote for Romney, depending on the strength of their feelings on health care and other relevant issues.

As we all know, however, voters are not particularly rational, which is why political campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars on misleading and manipulative advertisements. It is almost always the emotional impact of events rather than the rational consequences that change voters’ tendencies. And in this case, the emotional impact is good for Obama. He looks like a winner. He looks strong. “Obama wins, Romney loses” is the sense one gets from the headlines this week. At the same time, many of the confused people who thought they opposed the law (but weren’t sure) or who thought it must be unconstitutional (but were a bit on the fence) will now say to themselves, “Well, even this conservative Supreme Court and conservative justice Roberts thought it was constitutional. It can’t be that bad.”

So my guess is that polling for both Obama and Obamacare will improve slightly after this decision. (If they don’t, I’ll admit having been wrong about this.) I’m not at all sure these effects will mean much in the long-run, but I think there is more help than harm for Obama in the news.

The one potential counter-argument is that die-hard conservatives will now be more motivated to donate and volunteer time for Romney, someone they were lukewarm on before. Perhaps, but it strikes me that the right is already pretty motivated, just as the left was against Bush in 2004. I don’t think this decision changes that very much.

UPDATE: Minutes after publishing this post, I saw that Nate Silver at the NYTimes actually did make a case very similar to mine a couple days ago. But Nate is usually pretty insightful, and also claims to be going against the conventional wisdom. I consider myself in good company here.