White House

Someone Should Tell Trump He Owns Obamacare Now

When voters dislike what's happening, they blame the president. The current one.

Former presidents are hard to blame for current problems.

Photographer: Jack Brockway/Getty Images

Donald Trump is trotting out one of his odder assertions from back on the campaign trail, now packaged as his backup plan in case the Republican health care bill doesn't pass: He'll let Obamacare fail, so people will blame the Democrats. 1

Never mind that if the current bill goes down it will fairly obviously be a Republican failure through and through; after all, Republicans have majorities in both chambers of Congress. And since they're using the reconciliation procedure in the Senate, all they need is to stay united in order to pass their bill. So it's going to be extremely difficult for anyone other than hard-core partisans to place the blame anywhere but on the majority party.

Never mind, too, that Trump is (as many immediately pointed out) giving away the game by saying publicly that he'll allow the health care system of the United States to just fail. 2  

No, never mind those things, because logical arguments, for better or worse, really don't have much to do with voter blame in these sorts of things.

The truth is -- and Trump really should learn this as quickly as possible -- that voters blame incumbents when things go wrong. 

Of course, once again hard-core Republican partisans will happily blame everything on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and every other Democrat they've ever heard of. But that's sort of irrelevant, because that group (some 20 to 30 percent of the electorate is probably a good guess) will be with Trump no matter what happens, just as hard-core partisans supported Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush to the bitter end.

But for everyone else, it's events that matter, and they'll blame events (such as, say, the collapse of their states' individual health insurance market) on the man currently in the White House. Whether it was actually his fault or not.

The history of this is extremely strong. Look at what happened to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama early in their presidencies. Both inherited awful economies (Obama with a deep recession; Reagan with terrible inflation and, soon, a tough recession as interest rates were yanked up to stop inflation). And both of these skilled politicians, both of whom ran well-regarded transitions and both of whom who quickly signed into law central portions of their campaign platforms, rapidly became very unpopular. In fact, they both stayed unpopular long enough to suffer serious landslides for the other party in midterm elections, in 1982 and 2010. 

It didn't matter how much they blamed their (very unpopular!) predecessors. It didn't matter whether their policies had been popular during the campaign, or even up to the point they passed. When voters dislike what's happening, they blame the president. The current one. That's pretty close to being an Iron Law of politics, and Trump should accept that it's true.

It's a good thing, too, even to the extent that it's utterly irrational in many cases. 3  That's because the belief that voters punish incumbents when things go wrong, whether or not it's their fault, is the strongest incentive for those incumbents to work very hard to prevent things from going wrong. People talk a lot about "accountability," and for the most part the evidence doesn't seem to support any kind of strong version of it: Voters do not sit down and carefully assess exactly what politicians have done in office and even more carefully apportion blame where it belongs. They have very short memories (so that Reagan and Obama both won re-election when the economy improved dramatically -- in Reagan's case -- and just enough, in Obama's). But they do punish politicians for highly visible problems, especially close to elections.

And what's more, normal politicians believe that voters act that way. Avoiding visible policy disasters isn't the only goal politicians have, but it's an important one for most of them. And that's good, because policy disasters are, well, bad, and it's nice to have the government attempt to prevent them. Indeed, some arguments for democracy are centered on that incentive.

If Trump really believes he can deliberately inflict damage on voters (or refrain from available action to prevent damage, which amounts to the same thing) and successfully put the blame on his predecessor? That could be one of the most dangerous things about him. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Granted, Trump could be deliberately bluffing. Or he could be just talking through his hat; it's not unusual for this president to find phrases he likes and stick with them even though those phrases seem to have nothing to do at all with his subsequent actions. And even if he means it, it's one thing to threaten policy failure in advance; it's another to actually step back when things are going badly and people are demanding action. But he has repeated this line several times, so maybe (at least for now) he really means it.

  2. Also never mind that by giving House Freedom Caucus types hope for full repeal somewhere in the future may undermine the current effort to replace the Affordable Care Act with something they consider Obamacare Lite. 

  3. The Reagan and Obama economy cases are nothing. There's a whole political science literature showing voters punishing incumbents (in elections at various levels) for things such as local sports teams losing and bad weather. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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