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

July 10, 2019

Following years of legal challenges and political battles, a federal appeals court in New Orleans may now hold the fate of the Affordable Care Act in its hands.

A trio of judges there is deliberating whether to uphold a ruling out of Texas late last year that the health care law is unconstitutional. The decision could have far-reaching consequences.

Enacted in 2010, the law has expanded health insurance for millions. But as FRONTLINE’s 2017 documentary Divided States of America explored, the passage of “Obamacare” also contributed to years of political polarization, the surge of the Tea Party movement, and a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that helped fuel President Donald 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 told FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from Divided States of America. “And I don’t think Obama was expecting that.”

Divided States, from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, told the inside story of how President Obama’s promise of change, unity and bipartisanship quickly collided with political realities — including unified Republican opposition to his agenda — and racially-charged resistance. The two-part series identified 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. After a year of Obama failing to gain bipartisan support for health care reform, the vote was the last hurdle for the bill to clear Congress.

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 told 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 from Trump, who would make repealing the bill a key promise of his winning campaign (though his efforts to do so via Congress would ultimately fail).

“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 told FRONTLINE.

To go deeper into the political battles and costly compromises that led to the Affordable Care Act’s passage, stream the 2010 documentary, Obama’s Deal, below:

You can also stream Obama’s Deal, Divided States of America and more than 200 other FRONTLINE documentaries on, on-demand, or on the PBS Video App.

This post has been updated.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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