Thursday, May 5, 2011

Obama, GOP still face health care reform traps

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act hasn't settled the issue or calmed the politics before this year's congressional elections. Instead it has raised the stakes for President Obama and his party to assure millions of doubters that this is the right public course on an intensely personal issue.

But it also has created treacherous ground for Republicans, many of whom are preparing to run for office this fall on a promise to repeal the measure. Without a solid, specific alternative that looks both politically possible and addresses real concerns about the health care system, Republicans risk looking like defenders of a discredited status quo.

So far, Obama hasn't gotten the public opinion bump many Democrats had hoped for. His job approval rating in the first major USA TODAY-Gallup poll taken after the bill's passage fell to 47%, and his disapproval rating hit 50% for the first time in his presidency.

More importantly, 50% of respondents called the reforms a "bad thing," while 47% called them a "good thing." By 2-1, respondents thought the law would make their personal health care situations worse, not better. The "bad thing" rating rose by 10 points over a Gallup survey taken right after the bill's passage.

One possible explanation for the spike: In the days after passage, big companies came out with statements predicting how much more the reforms would eventually cost them. Obama and congressional Democrats pushed back, saying the will be is phased in and benefits will eventually outweigh costs in both coverage and deficit reduction.

But in the midst of high unemployment, statements from companies such as AT&T and Valero Energy that the new law would cost them weren't the headlines Democrats wanted on their victory lap. When major employers talk about hits to the bottom line, workers hear "layoffs."

Despite wariness about the bill, Republicans shouldn't underestimate Obama's ability to sell it. He built the most sophisticated grassroots presidential campaign ever by using technology and a relentless political ethic. Now morphed into the Campaign For America online empire, this network of activists and online contacts was used to pressure wavering Democrats and beat back Republican arguments during the year-long health care debate.

Make no mistake, governing is campaigning, and vice versa, in the Obama White House.

Obama himself likened health care reform to his campaign in a special YouTube video taped for Campaign for America followers before he gave a speech in Des Moines three days after signing the bill.

Lauding Campaign for America supporters for campaign-style activities like "knocking on doors ... making phone calls ... talking to your neighbors," Obama said: "It shows that you can make a difference the same way you made a difference during my campaign. ... You are the force that brings about change."

Then, in his public speech, instead of reaching out to Republicans, Obama dared them to take their repeal-the-bill strategy to voters in November.

That may be a winning political strategy if, as Obama said, Americans eventually realize the reforms he signed into law didn't bring a health-care "Armageddon."

But Democrats have a big trap to avoid before getting there.

By demonizing tea party activists and other opponents by accusing them of racism, ignorance and right-wing violence, they underestimate and degrade the worries of millions of Americans still unsure about this legislation.

If Democrats doubt the perils of this position, they should look at one USA TODAY-Gallup poll question in particular. Asked which was most responsible for the widely reported threats of violence or acts of violence after the bill passed, 49% of respondents cited "controversial political maneuvers by Democratic leaders to get the votes needed to pass the health care legislation" while 46% cited "harsh criticism from conservative commentators" on radio and television..

That is a country divided.

Chuck Raasch writes from Washington for Gannett. Contact him at, follow him at or join in the conversation at

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