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 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT