Aug 28th 2009

Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of

by Bill Schneider

Bill Schneider, a leading U.S. political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and Resident Scholar at Third Way and the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor Public Policy at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. He has been CNN's senior political analyst since 1990. He is also a contributing editor to National Journal and The Atlantic Monthly. Schneider has been labeled ``the Aristotle of American politics'' by The Boston Globe. Campaigns and Elections Magazine called him "the most consistently intelligent analyst on television.'' He is a member of the CNN political team that was awarded an Emmy for its 2006 election coverage and a Peabody for its 2008 coverage.

How did everything fall apart so quickly?

After the first 100 days, President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress were on top of the world. The President's job ratings were in the 60s. In the Pew Research Center poll, Democrats had a 19-point edge in favorability over Republicans (59 percent favorable for Democrats, 40 percent for Republicans).

By August, the President's job approval had dropped to 51 percent in the Pew poll and the NBC News poll. The Democrats' lead over the Republicans in favorability had dropped to 9 points -- entirely because of a sharp drop in positive opinion of the Democratic Party.

It's not the economy, stupid. While the nation's economic gloom has certainly not lifted, people don't think things have gotten markedly worse. In the August Washington Post-ABC News poll, more people said President Obama's economic program was making the economy better (43 percent) rather than worse (23 percent). And more Americans expect the recession to be over in the next year (28 percent in February, 49 percent in August).

The problem is health care, of course. By every available measure, confidence in President Obama's health care policy has diminished. In the Post-ABC poll, Americans approved the President's handling of health care by nearly two to one in April (57 to 29 percent). Now they narrowly disapprove, 50 to 46. In the NBC poll, the number who think President Obama's health care plan is "a bad idea'' went from 26 percent in April to 42 percent in August. Only 36 percent now say it's "a good idea.''

President Bill Clinton's experience stands as a warning to Democrats. During Clinton's first two years in office, the economy actually got better. The unemployment rate dropped from 7.4 percent when Clinton got elected in 1992 to 5.6 percent in November 1994. And so what? The Democrats still got blown away in the 1994 midterm. Not because of the economy, but because of voter anger over taxes and gun control and gays in the military and midnight basketball and, above all, health care.

The big surprise is that the backlash over health care reform came as such a surprise. The force of voter anger seemed to astound both parties. President Obama's formidable political movement failed to mobilize until the threat was in their face. Some Republicans seemed ready to work with the Administration until they saw the ferocity of the protesters. Those who believe the protests were staged by the GOP are giving the Republican Party too much credit. They're not that well organized.

It's not that the public rejects health care reform. It's still a popular idea. The Kaiser Health Care poll continues to show solid support for requiring all Americans to have health insurance, with subsidies for those who can't afford it (68 percent). And the public favors requiring employers to offer health insurance to their workers (68 percent). People even support the idea of a public option -- "a government-administered public health insurance option similar to Medicare to compete with private health insurance plans'' (59 percent).

When asked specifically about changes to the health care system being proposed by President Obama and Congress, the public is split. But what matters is not just numbers. It's intensity. And the opposition is more intense: 40 percent say they're "strongly'' opposed while 27 percent are "strongly'' supportive." In the Pew poll, 38 percent of Republicans say they'd be angry if health care reform passes. Only 13 percent of Democrats say they'd be angry if health care reform fails.


Why did this happen?

Recriminations have already started. The Obama Administration overcompensated for President Clinton's failure 15 years ago. President Obama did not turn the issue over to a secretive task force headed by an unelected First Lady and a team of policy wonks (remember Ira Magaziner?). Instead, Obama let the Democrats in Congress come up with a plan. Or more precisely, several plans, all making their way through congressional committees. That approach gave the President more options and greater flexibility. But he has no actual proposal for Democrats to rally around. No one is sure if President Obama even intends to fight for a public option.

Recriminations are, of course, a favorite Washington pastime, but the real reasons for the backlash are deeply rooted in American culture. In two places, to be precise -- ideology and psychology.

Distrust of government is a core value of American populism. The people are "us.'' Government is "them.'' Distrust of government is embedded in the Constitution, which was written by men who disliked central government (King George III) and intended it to be as weak as possible. Hence, the elaborate system of checks and balances and separation of powers and the many ways in which decisive action can be blocked. In fact, the Constitution replaced an earlier document, the Articles of Confederation, in which government was so weak it was unworkable.

Distrust of government is a principle of faith among conservatives these days, but the sentiment is not limited to the right. For the first century of American politics, Democrats were the anti-government party. Then, as now, Democrats were the party of the poor and the oppressed, but government was then seen as a bastion of privilege. Reaganism can't hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson's and Andrew Jackson's attacks on centralized power. What changed was the discovery -- first by Progressives, then by New Deal Democrats -- that government could be used to attack privilege and promote economic and social justice.

The scholar Seymour Martin Lipset used the analogy of loaded dice to describe how values work. Once certain values are loaded by defining historical experiences, they will come up again and again and shape later events. That is happening now with health care reform. The anti-government backlash started building up even before Barack Obama became President, when President Bush endorsed the Wall Street bailouts. The backlash intensified with the automobile industry bailout, the economic stimulus plan, the energy bill and mounting deficits. Health care reform gave conservatives the opportunity to light the fuse.

The wonder is that American government actually does work, even though it was designed not to. It works when there is a crisis -- when an overwhelming sense of public urgency overwhelms blockages and lubricates the system. That is supposed to be the case now with health care. But it is not. Sure, there's sense of crisis in the country, but it is over jobs more than health care. When Americans are asked to name the major problems facing the nation, the economy towers over everything else. Health care ranks third, after the economy and government spending.

That's where psychology comes into play. President Obama has put out a mighty effort to create a sense of crisis, warning voters about the cost of inaction. "If you're worried about rationed care, higher costs, denied coverage or bureaucrats getting between you and your doctor, then you should know that's what's happening right now,'' the President said in his weekly address on August 15. In the NBC poll, only 24 percent of Americans said they thought the quality of their health care would get better if the Obama plan passes. Forty percent thought it would get worse.

Americans overwhelmingly say they're satisfied with their health care (83 percent in a CNN poll) and their health insurance (74 percent). A whopping 71 percent are satisfied with both. What's striking is that nearly half of that "satisfied majority'' still favor health care reform (44 percent in the CNN poll). They believe all Americans should be covered. Their view is, if people don't have health insurance, the government should see to it that they can get it, even if it means taxing the rich. But they see no reason why that means their own health care has to change.

The psychology of health care is not driven by economic rationality. People rarely choose a doctor or a hospital or a treatment based on price. (Medications, yes.) In the current health care system, costs are largely hidden from consumers. Try telling employees that their employer-paid health care benefits should be taxed as income. It's income they never see. Economists argue that rising health insurance costs for employers have been supressing wages for years. But most workers are unaware of the real and growing costs of those benefits. Somebody else pays most of them.

People's sense of security about their health care may be false and irrational. But it is real. Just like the warning Members of Congress hear over and over again from seniors at town hall meetings: "You tell the government to keep its hands off my Medicare!''

Does this mean President Obama's health care agenda is doomed? No. A lot of people continue to support reform, and the Democrats have solid majorities in Congress. They don't want to pull the plug on health care reform as the Democratic Congress did in 1994. For one thing, they don't want to bring down their own President. The failure of health care reform in 1994 forced President Clinton to shrink his agenda from big ambitions to protecting the safety net. For another thing, congressional Democrats know who paid the political price of failure in 1994. They did.

Some version of health care reform will very likely pass, possibly including a public option. But it will pass on a partisan vote. What's wrong with that? Democrats won spectacular victories in 2006, when they took control of Congress, and in 2008, when they took the White House. If that's not a mandate to govern, what is?

But for a major policy initiative to be politically secure, it needs a bipartisan base. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which actually got a higher proportion of support from Republicans than from Democrats (in those days, there were still a lot of conservative southern Democrats). Any policy that passes on a partisan vote is subject to constant sniping and threats of reversal when the other party gains power.

President Obama will probably win on health care reform. But voter backlash has steeled the Republican Party to mount a full- scale opposition. Victory on health care will be a triumph of the partisan culture that President Obama pledged to defeat.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author, they do not represent the views of Third Way.

Published with kind permission of Third Way.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "