With Mitt Romney his almost certain opponent, Barack Obama faces an uphill fight to win re-election. But Republicans may have given Obama the rallying cry he needs to spur disillusioned voters. In vowing to abolish national health care reform if they win the White House, Romney and fellow Republicans have made health care a central issue in the 2012 campaign. If the health care measure were not at risk, Romney and Republicans could convincingly argue that there’s no reason to give Obama a second term because he will not accomplish more on jobs or the economy than in his first four years. But if voters believe that Obama’s re-election is essential to preserve national health care reform – which, for all of its shortcomings, is better than the status quo and is popular with voters – the President has a path to victory.
As much as progressives want to believe that voters are too smart to turn the entire federal government over to the Tea Party in 2012, that is wishful thinking. No President has ever won re-election with such a combination of high unemployment and overwhelming public sentiment that the nation is going in the wrong direction. And those finding optimism in even lower approval numbers for Congress should recognize that Congress as a whole will not be on the ballot – but the President will.
I explained on August 16, 2011 why Mitt Romney would defeat Obama in 2012, but at that point I underestimated Rick Perry’s incompetence and saw him as the likely nominee. This was also before abolishing Obamacare through reconciliation (i.e. 51 vs. 60 Senate votes) became a Republican presidential litmus test (while “Obamacare” was long the term negatively used by opponents, even the President now uses the term as he recognizes how it can help his re-election).
As recently as late September, Romney was bashed by conservatives for not including Obamacare’s repeal among his 59 “Day One” presidential actions. By the October 11 presidential debate, Romney had switched course, insisting, “as president, I will repeal Obamacare.”
That switch could cost him the Presidency.
Going Backward On Health Care
The pervasive sense of economic unease that puts Obama at risk in November 2012 also means that many voters will not support a candidate that promises to deny them anticipated health care benefits. And while it is easier to repeal benefits that have not yet been received – most of Obamacare does not begin until 2014 – Republicans may have forgotten that some portions have been implemented.
For example, Obamacare has enabled children age 26 or less to remain on their parents’ health care plans. The 21-26 age group impacted by this is among the constituencies whose electoral drop-off in 2010 led to huge Republican victories. Now these voters may feel compelled to go to the polls for Obama in order to ensure health coverage, even if they are disillusioned with the President on other issues.
Other constituencies already benefitting from Obamacare also have new reason to re-elect the President. The Obama campaign knows who these voters are, and will let them know how Romney’s election puts their health benefits at risk.
In a political context where Occupy Wall Street has thrown a broad spotlight on the 1% vs. 99%, a Republican campaign pledging to repeal expanded health care for the working and middle-class is profoundly wrongheaded. And not just because, like right-wing disbelief in global warming, economic stimulus and many other issues, repealing health care is bad policy. Rather, it is also bad politics, as it will allow Obama to frame the 2012 election in far more favorable terms.
Latino Voters as Alternative Path
The Republican pledge to abolish Obamacare also helps the President with Latino voters. As a poll by Latino Decisions reported last week, Republicans still have a major problem with Latino voters. But Latino support for Obama has declined as his Administration continues to deport nearly 400,000 Latino immigrants annually.
Latino voters saved Harry Reid’s Senate seat in Nevada in 2010, and the competition between Republican presidential contenders for whom can be most anti-Latino immigrant would seem to ensure a large pro-Obama Latino turnout in 2012.
But as with young people and other groups who are disappointed with the President, anger at Republicans does not necessarily translate into going to the polls in large number to vote against them. People need a positive reason to vote – and Latinos, who strongly supported health care reform, may now have such a reason due to the Republican pledge to repeal Obamacare.
Foreign Policy Irrelevant to 2012
The media has devoted so much space to foreign policy and so little to Obamacare in the past months that some may wonder why Obama’s successes in the former area will not make a difference in 2012. And the answer is that foreign policy is not an issue in 2012.
Foreign policy only becomes an issue in presidential elections if Republicans can use it against the Democratic candidate. It does not matter how many dictators the Obama Administration helps bring down, or how many terrorists it kills – foreign policy at best neutralizes attacks, but does not convince Republican or independent voters to vote Democratic.
Obama’s drive for health care reform was seen as a political loser after the 2010 elections, but now it is the leading force for his potential re-election.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.