The Obamacare Effect: Sterling Bargoers Vote For Good Healthcare

Sep 8, 2014

This November, citizens will vote on a number of issues. Many of them will also participate in the next open enrollment period under The Affordable Care Act. The ACA, or Obamacare, remains a hot topic for political pundits. But will it motivate voters? For the third time this summer, WNIJ asked author Dan Libman to learn the mood of the electorate. Dan has been interviewing voters in the places they feel most comfortable: their neighborhood bars. For the next installment of our Politics on Tap series, Dan goes to Sterling, Illinois, to hang out with the regulars...

A while back, I sat down with NIU political scientist Matt Streb at Fatty’s Sport’s Bar and Grill in DeKalb and talked about a number of issues pertaining to the upcoming midterm elections in November. He told me, “President Obama has made the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of his presidency.”

While I drank a Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA, Matt had a Blue Moon.

He continued, “[Obama] has kind of made this a referendum on the Affordable care act and the Republicans want to make it a referendum on the Affordable Care Act and the Democratic congressional candidates are a little leery, some of them, about making this a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.”

Obviously, the politicians have made their positions clear, but what about the voters?

Dateline Sterling, Illinois, my favorite kind of small Midwestern town: surrounded by scenic, rolling farmland with a river bordering one side, the downtown is laid out in a convivial grid. The wide streets are lined with brick buildings sporting windows that feature business names in stenciled letters. The courtly mansions along the western edge of town speak of a former glory, while the new businesses downtown suggest a possible return to that glory.

Because Sterling is a town rich in history, downtown also features several impressive murals. One of the largest is on the corner of Third and Locust: the likeness of all the presidents who have been to Sterling. There have been eight: Lincoln and Reagan naturally, both having grown up in Illinois, but also GHW Bush, Grant, Wilson, McKinley and both Roosevelts. The notable missing president is Barack Obama who, despite his strong Illinois connection, has not made an appearance in Sterling.

And yet, on the very other side of the mural, the conversation is all Barack Obama. Third and Locust is also the location of two of Sterling’s watering holes. First Kelly’s, a traditional Irish bar that also happens to serve amazing Mexican food. Sitting in a booth having huevos rancheros was Mary. I asked her if the Affordable Care Act is something she was paying attention to—if it might change the way she voted.

“No,” she told me. “Because I retired and I have full coverage insurance so I’m not really concerned with Obamacare. Now maybe I should be because my son is 28 and doesn’t have insurance and I know that he’s going to have to have insurance. Actually he probably will be penalized because he hasn’t gotten it yet.”

Right next door is one of the city’s newest enterprises, an upscale wine and beer bar called The Rusty Fox, where the young owner stopped to talk a little, while opening a bottle of  Founder’s Devil Dancer IPA for me. As far as he is concerned, Obamacare doesn't go far enough. He would prefer a single-payer system like many European countries have. Still, Rich understands why Obamacare remains a hard sell for many Americans.

“The biggest complaint that anyone seems to have, that makes any sense at all, is that we’re being forced to purchase a product, that we all sort of desperately need anyway and all should have, right? But still: making me buy insurance? People get incensed about it.”

Sitting at a bar stool I met Edward, who was drinking a Bell’s Porter. He's self employed and couldn't get insurance since quitting his job five years ago.

“Before the Affordable Care Act, if I was to attempt to get any insurance it would cost me at least a quarter of my monthly income, which can be 800 dollars a month or higher.”

Edward feels that health care is a God given right, and he is particularly concerned about people who have pre-existing conditions.

“That particular part of the Affordable Care Act is something that’s very important because of diabetes, cancer, heart disease; things that companies can deny you based on something that they don’t want to pay for.”

For Edward, the pre-existing condition issue is not simply academic, which is why he’s paid close attention to an experience of a friend overseas.

“He told me why Germany is top of the line in engineering and in health care, and global energy. Okay? And renewable energy. If your heart is dying—I have congestive heart failure, it’s called cardiomyopathy. In Germany you will get a heart for free. You may pay 19% in taxes but health care is not an issue.”

Clearly, health care is an emotional issue, one that goes beyond politics, which is why it touches on so many conversations I had with people. As Matt Streb put it:

“Everybody at some point is going to have to deal with health care. You can talk about a lot of sad stories of people who did not get good health care, and maybe it could have saved their lives, or prolonged their lives but on the other hand there is an economic cost to that. Business look at it and say if you want us to have to spend more on health care then I can’t hire as many people or our bottom line is hurt and that’s going to hurt the economy so I really think that’s where you see it.”

We won’t really know what the voters think until Nov 4th when they take their talk out of the saloons and put it into action at the voting booth. Perhaps this is why bars have been historically closed on election day—in fact it wasn’t until this year when South Carolina struck the nation’s very last election day prohibition law from the books. That’s why bars and saloons are such vital places to spend time listening, talking, and yes, drinking.

And that’s where I’ll be, listening to voters who will be telling me what they want the candidates to say. Until then, save a seat at the bar for me.

--Dan Libman

Dan Libman is an NIU faculty member, craft beer aficionado and author of the story collection Married But Looking.