WATCH: How “Obamacare” Became a Symbol of America’s Divide

January 16, 2017
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office and Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, the Republican-led Congress is debating how to dismantle one of Obama’s signature efforts: The Affordable Care Act.

Enacted in 2010, and initially dubbed “Obamacare” by critics, the law has expanded health insurance for millions. But as FRONTLINE’s new, two-night documentary, Divided States of America, shows, its passage also contributed to years of political polarization, the surge of the Tea Party movement, and a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that helped fuel Trump’s road to victory. 

“What happened after it was passed, and because of the way it was passed, it became the symbol of the divide, and the reality of it in many ways,” David Maraniss of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from part one of Divided States of America. “And I don’t think Obama was expecting that.”

Airing Tues., Jan. 17 and Wed., Jan. 18, Divided States, from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, tells the inside story of how Obama’s promise of change, unity and bipartisanship quickly collided with political realities — including unified Republican opposition to his agenda — and racially-charged resistance.

From populist anger around the government’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis, to the resonance of Sarah Palin’s anti-elite and anti-establishment message, to a series of racial incidents between law enforcement and the African American community, Divided States identifies turning points over the past eight years that exposed simmering divisions among the American people — among them, the fraught passage of Obamacare in Congress without a single Republican vote. 

In the above excerpt, go inside the White House on Christmas Eve 2009 — the night that health care reform passed in the House. The vote was the last hurdle for the bill to clear in Congress, and followed the president’s attempt to change the conversation around health care reform after a year in which he failed to gain bipartisan support.

As Divided States recounts, there was a moment of celebration for the president, who had previously told aides that reform was about “proving whether we can still solve big problems in this country.”

“I asked him, I said, how does this night compare to election night?” Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett tells FRONTLINE. “And he looked at me and said, Valerie, there’s just no comparison. Election night was just about getting us to a night like this.”

But then came the backlash — from Tea Party supporters, from establishment Republicans, and ultimately, from Donald Trump himself, who’d make repealing the bill a key promise of his winning campaign.

“It was obviously a big moment of success for President Obama getting it passed, but it sowed the seeds for years of division and really leaves open the question as to whether or when the country might finally come to accept what he has done,” Peter Baker of The New York Times tells FRONTLINE.

For more, watch Divided States of America on Tues., Jan. 17 and Wed., Jan. 18, at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on PBS stations and online.

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