Skip to main content

Repeal Obamacare? Forget about it

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 7 million people have signed up for Affordable Care Act coverage
  • Julian Zelizer says that ensures that President Obama's signature program will endure
  • As with Medicare and farm subsidies, programs that benefit millions tend to last, he says
  • Zelizer: Obamacare will face implementation challenges, but talk of repeal is aimless

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." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In American politics, there is strength in numbers. When enough people feel a vested interest in the survival of a program, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for opponents to dismantle it.

Obamacare, officially the Affordable Care Act, looks like it has just reached a critical tipping point. While the program still faces many challenges and numerous Republicans remained determined to keep attacking, the news that 7 million people have enrolled through the health care exchanges is a big victory for President Barack Obama and his supporters. Medicaid enrollment rose by 3 million people, much of which is a result of ACA as well.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Rather than Obamacare being an abstract promise to Americans that will be fulfilled in the distant future, now the Affordable Care Act is a concrete program upon which millions of American voters will be depending. As that number increases, opponents of ACA will be going after the benefits of many millions of Americans -- not just the President.

There is a long history of government programs securing their political strength through sheer numbers.

Although Social Security remained a problematic and controversial program between 1935 and 1950 -- with some officials wondering whether it would even survive -- by the time that Dwight Eisenhower was President, there were fewer legislators willing to express such doubts. The reason was simple. Democratic and Republican legislators found their districts inhabited by elderly Americans who counted on these government pensions and workers who were paying payroll taxes. This is why legislators would increase benefits every election year.

Agricultural supports have been equally strong since being put into place during the Great Depression. As farmers, farms and the entire agricultural industry came to depend on federal government assistance to ensure that prices remained stable, legislators shied away from trying to fix the program. Even legislators who represented urban districts had little interest in angering powerful rural representatives and senators whose constituents would not tolerate anyone tampering with their programs.

When Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson went after the program, Republicans suffered. "Ezra Taft Benson," one reporter said when covering the 1954 midterm elections, "has become the [Democrats'] fall guy, replacing the tired image of Herbert Hoover."

Is Obamacare second-rate insurance?

In the years before Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, opponents -- including powerful voices in the health insurance industry and the American Medical Association -- railed against the plan as "socialized medicine" that would empower the government to make all the decisions doctors had once had control over. But President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Congress overcame their opposition to put into place these two major domestic programs.

By the 1970s, serious opposition fell away.

Doctors were depending on Medicare to fund their patients. Hospitals and states were planning on the Medicaid budget to keep their health systems going. And elderly patients no longer suffered the risk of not being able to seek treatment in their old age. As a result, nobody really wanted to get rid of these programs.

Although there were fights to reform Medicare's regulatory structure and to cut costs since the 1980s, the strength of the programs has been formidable. There has been, thus far, little possibility that either would be scrapped.

The same has been true for defense spending. The surge of military contracts in Southern and Western states during the 1940s and 1950s became a staple to the economic success of the Sunbelt. There are many reasons why defense spending is hard to retrench, but most important is the huge number of people who will vote and lobby against you if you take a step in this direction.

ACA is now starting to reach this same territory. For this reason alone, it makes sense that Obama is smiling. While the program does not have the tens of millions of people who are in the Medicare or Social Security programs, the numbers are growing.

ACA will continue to face political attacks and implementation challenges, but the enrollment level virtually ensures serious debates over repealing ACA are now dead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 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 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT