Saturday, August 1, 2009

What (or Who) Is Health Care Reform About?

CNN political analyst Bill Schneider makes an interesting assertion in National Journal.

Because Barack Obama is more popular than his policy proposals — especially, it seems, his health care reform plan — Schneider sees his campaign as more about him than it is about his policy. The strategy, Schneider says, is simple: "The more it's about him, the more he's likely to win."

I have always found Schneider to be reasonable and logical. He comprehends the underlying factors that drive voter behavior. Any political strategist who blithely dismisses Schneider's conclusions should be fired immediately.
"The president is more popular than his health care initiative. That explains why he is putting himself on the line to rally public support. Republicans are playing into his hands by making it all about him. Sen. Jim DeMint, R–S.C., told Politico, 'If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.' William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, urged Republicans to 'go for the kill.' "

Bill Schneider
National Journal

Politicians in both parties play P.R. games, but I can't help wondering if Republicans are smelling blood in the water on this one.

Schneider acknowledges that Obama's approval numbers are down. The polls are virtually unanimous on that, based on the results of surveys that were conducted in the last week and a half of July:As you can see, he remains popular with at least 50% of respondents in each survey. But he clearly doesn't have the eye–popping numbers he had a few months ago.

So now Obama is putting what remains of his popularity — his political capital — on the line for health care reform. Schneider reports that polls show a solid majority of Americans in favor of health care reform, but less than half believe achieving it is as urgent as Obama says it is.

"Obama's urgency is being driven by politics," Schneider writes. "A president is best positioned to get big things done, such as health care reform, during his first year in office. That is when he is most likely to enjoy the people's goodwill. They voted for change."

Then Schneider makes the kind of observation that perhaps only someone who spends his life trying to read between the lines of surveys can make. "The president's job–approval number is the Dow Jones industrial average of Washington. When it's high, he has clout. When his numbers drop, he loses power. The decline in the president's ratings is a message: He has to act now, before his numbers drop any further."

Continuing the stock market analogy, wouldn't it make sense to suggest that, if a president gambles his personal popularity on legislative proposals that are not as popular as he is yet he is victorious, he will earn dividends and, if he is not successful, he will experience a loss?

Of course, that depends on how the public perceives the victory. Suppose Obama keeps enough Congressional Democrats on his side to push through health care reform this year — but the public thinks it was done too hastily? What will that do to Obama's approval ratings?

And how will it play in next year's midterm elections? Many members of Congress who must face the voters in 2010 may feel inclined to vote one way on the legislation but ultimately vote the other way because of the perceived public sentiment in his/her district or state.

I remember what happened the last time a president tried to reform health care. It is a different time, of course, and the obstacles that the Republicans must overcome are greater than they were in 1994. But if the Republicans in Congress even come close to doing to Obama what they did to Bill Clinton, Obama will — at the very least — lose his filibuster–proof majority in the Senate.

And then, even if they remain the minority party, the Republicans can thwart Obama's ambitious agenda.

Personally, I would prefer to see Obama spending his political capital on innovative policies that will emphasize job creation. That is the only way to turn the economy around — putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work, paying taxes and infusing the economy with their wages.

I'm not an economist, but one of the lessons I have learned in life is that consumer spending lubricates the economic engine.

Those who are unemployed are trying to find ways to preserve their modest benefits. And those who are still employed are trying to preserve their money in case their luck runs out.

Health care reform is not the top priority for Americans today. Trying to make it the top priority may cost Obama more of his personal support than he is prepared to give up at this early stage of his term in office.

When the economy is showing signs of life again, that is the time to press for something like health care reform.

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