Thursday, December 16, 2010
The politics of President Obama’s health care law have been fascinating from the start. Hailed as fulfillment of a popular campaign promise when introduced, the law proved to be a major drag on Democrats in the 2010 election. An issue on which Democrats once overwhelmingly trusted Democrats over Republicans has become a toss-up between the parties as 2011 approaches.
As Rasmussen Reports has documented, many individual components of the plan are popular, but the overall legislation remains unpopular. The unpopularity stems from the cost of the legislation in an era when voters would like to see federal spending go down rather than up.
One little-noted aspect of the debate was a disagreement over the purpose of the legislation. Most voters identified cost as the biggest problem with health care in America today, but about one-in-four said the lack of universal coverage was the top issue. Among those who see the lack of universal coverage as the biggest problem, 86% favored the legislation. However, among the majority who see cost as the biggest issue, 68% opposed the health care bill. [
As a result, every week since the bill's passage by congressional Democrats in March, a majority of voters have favored its repeal.
A commentary by Michael Barone notes that it been more than 150 years since such significant but unpopular legislation was passed through Congress on a partisan basis. The political ramifications in 1854 were so significant that it led to the creation of a new political party, the Republican Party. Ultimately, the Kansas-Nebraska Act also played a key role in the run-up to the Civil War.
Despite CBO projections, voters continue to believe the health care bill will increase the federal budget deficit (that’s largely because 81% say it will cost more than projected). Most voters also think it will increase the cost of care while hurting the quality of care. At a time when 75% of voters with health insurance are happy with their coverage, 44% believe the law could force them to change that coverage.
In addition to the cost, of course, another unpopular aspect of the law is the so-called individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance. This has been the subject of many lawsuits, and a federal judge this week deemed it unconstitutional. The case will most likely be decided by the Supreme Court in the next couple of years.
All of which leads to another strange twist in the politics of the health care law. If the Supreme Court were to declare the existing law (or significant portions of it) unconstitutional, that would be very good news for the president’s reelection prospects.
In the aftermath of such a ruling, the president and Congress would scramble to reinstate many popular provisions of the law. According to the peculiar standards of government math, this new law would be seen as cutting spending since it wouldn’t be as expensive as the current law. Delivering a so-called reduction in federal spending would be popular on the campaign trail, and all incumbents would claim credit for the court-induced savings.
The bottom line is that a court rejection of the health care law would help the president in 2012. Combined with a good economy, it could very well be enough to help him overcome the renewed fight over extending the Bush era tax cuts and win reelection.
However, if the president is forced to defend the existing health care law and oppose an extension of the tax cuts in 2012, a good GOP candidate might even be able to overcome a slowly improving economy.
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