Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Health care will be an Obama legacy

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:50 AM EST, Mon March 4, 2013
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that his state would accept the Medicaid expansion that is part of the ACA.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that his state would accept the Medicaid expansion that is part of the ACA.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The politics of health care is changing fast
  • Zelizer: President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act is gaining more support
  • He says two of the most prominent Republicans have switched to support the ACA
  • Zelizer: The ACA is on its way to becoming an important legacy of the Obama presidency

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The politics of health care is changing fast. President Barack Obama's Affordable Health Care Act was vulnerable during his first term when Republicans demanded repeal of the law. Even after the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality, there were still many voices who objected to it.

However, with each passing day, it appears that the program is in good shape, slowly becoming part of the fabric of American government.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the main potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, said that his state would accept the Medicaid expansion that is part of the ACA. Christie had been one of the president's toughest critics, frequently lambasting the program as a prime example of big government liberalism. But he has changed his tune.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The expansion of Medicaid will allow about 104,000 of the poorest residents in New Jersey to gain access to health insurance. Christie said: "Let me be clear: I am no fan of the Affordable Health Care Act. I think it is wrong for New Jersey and for America. I fought against it and believe, in the long run, it will not achieve what it promises. However, it is now the law of the land. I will make all my judgments as governor based on what is best for New Jerseyans."

Christie's announcement comes on top of an even more dramatic reversal, that of Florida's Gov. Rick Scott.

The former health industry executive, who was elected to lead the Sunshine State in 2010, has been one of the more conservative voices in the GOP. Scott, who once warned that "Obamacare will result in the rationing of health care, significant tax increases, significant job losses and the inability of many Americans to keep their existing health insurance" also announced that Florida would accept the new Medicaid funds.

"When the federal government is committed to paying 100% of the cost," Scott said, "I cannot, in good conscience, deny Floridians that need access to health care."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Fewer Republicans are interested in fighting against the ACA any more. Not only is it a losing issue, but in the next few years, the benefits are going to start rolling in and more Americans will come to depend on the protections.

The shift in position by two of the most prominent Republicans suggests that the political dynamics are shifting, as Obama's supporters had always hoped. Republican officials now see powerful incentives for them to embrace the law rather than oppose it.

The biggest watershed moment for the ACA came in June 2012 when the Supreme Court ruled that the health care legislation was constitutional.

Florida governor reverses on Obamacare
Hobby Lobby takes on Obamacare
Obamacare limits doctors' gun questions

Like in 1937, when the Supreme Court declared that the Social Security tax was constitutional, the court's ruling on health care gave Obama's program a legitimacy that undercut some of the thunder coming from the right. The Affordable Care Act became law of the land. Then the 2012 presidential election was an affirmation of popular support for Obama and the policies for which he fought.

It's not unusual for a big piece of legislation to elicit strong oppositions at first.

With Social Security, the program experienced over a decade of uncertainty. A means tested program for the elderly proved much more popular during the 1940s, and Congress refused to raise Social Security taxes during World War II. But by the early 1950s, Social Security emerged as the primary means of helping the elderly.

As more Americans were receiving their checks, fewer politicians in either party opposed the program. President Dwight Eisenhower concluded that the GOP had little choice but to accept the program. Republicans and Democrats, including Southern Democrats, voted to increase benefits every two years. By the 1980s, Social Security would be considered to be the "third rail" in American politics -- touch the benefits and you die.

Similarly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 experienced strong reactions. The notion of prohibiting racial segregation was incredibly contentious. But once Congress passed it, Southern politicians, citizens and institutions quickly fell in line. In the 1970s and 1980s, issues such as affirmative action and school busing still riled up many, but de jure racial segregation was no longer considered acceptable by most.

More recently, during President George W. Bush's presidency, the new counterterrorism programs provoked heated debates. Democrats railed against the tough interrogation techniques used by the government to combat terrorism and highlighted institutions such as Guantanamo as symbols of what the nation was doing wrong. But Obama abandoned many of his plans to dismantle these programs.

His nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA and the protection of key documents that allegedly support the assassination of American citizens reveal how much the tide has turned.

Today, there is considerable evidence that the health care law is approaching that turning point.

As Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post, "so long as Obamacare is accepted as the law of the land, and repeal is dismissed by most Republicans as little more than a pleasant fantasy, then a constructive process can begin in which Republicans seize on problems with the law as an opportunity to reform the reforms -- and through that process, begin to buy into the new system."

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, such as making sure that the health care exchanges work and that funding for the program remains adequate. The program's success is not inevitable. But the recent change of heart from the darlings of the Republican Party is an indication the ACA is much further along to becoming one of the most important legacies of the Obama presidency.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT