Rising opposition to President Obama's healthcare proposals may be morphing into something broader and deeper: an anti-Obama movement that could jeopardize the president's political standing, damage the Democratic Party, and give the Republicans new life.
The concerns about "Obamacare" have triggered angry protests and emotional shout-downs at Democratic legislators' town hall meetings this August. And whether or not these eruptions have been orchestrated by right-wing groups, as Obama strategists contend, opposition to his healthcare overhaul has struck a nerve.
In fact, the healthcare furor has inflamed political passions and raised doubts that seem to be spreading to other areas, such as Obama's expansion of government power, corporate bailouts, and vast increases in the federal debt. The president's burgeoning and costly agenda got another jolt last week from a government projection that deficits will increase from $7.1 trillion to $9 trillion over the next decade.
The most important political development of the summer may be a shift in the passion factor that has led to the generation of more emotion on the anti-Obama right than on the pro-Obama left. "The opposition is very energized right now—much more motivated than Obama's supporters," says Ken Duberstein, the former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan who endorsed Obama last year. This is a big change from the campaign, when it was Obama who ignited the fires and drew millions of new voters to the polls with his charisma and promises of change.
Now, GOP strategists say that relentless attacks on Obama, even without positive alternatives, have been enough to give conservatives some traction and pull down the president's job-approval ratings.
Signs of the right's resurgence abound. The blogosphere and the Internet are alive with anti-Obama screeds. Fundraising is going well at the Republican National Committee. Morale among GOP legislators is brightening. In the battle of ideas, the latest New York Times list of nonfiction best sellers contains three anti-Obama books among its top five: Culture of Corruption by Michelle Malkin at No. 1, Catastrophe by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann at No. 4, and Liberty and Tyran ny by Mark R. Levin at No. 5.
What the public wants are results, and they have been hard to come by, especially in ending the recession, reducing unemployment, and muting partisan warfare in Washington. This is particularly disconcerting for independent voters, who tend to decide elections. While Obama's job approval is still above 50 percent in most polls, that's because of overwhelming backing from Democrats. Republicans are united against him, and independents are increasingly displeased with his policies. The latest Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that only 49 percent of Americans are confident that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent in April.
Fifty-five percent say the country is on the wrong track, up from 48 percent in April. The same poll found that only 46 percent of Americans now support Obama's handling of healthcare, the president's signature initiative, down from 49 percent in mid-July, while disapproval has increased to 50 percent from 44 percent.
Obama could turn the dynamic around if he wins some victories on Capitol Hill this fall or if the economy rebounds significantly. And White House officials say that the stories that seem so important during the slow news month of August, such as raucous healthcare protests, often fizzle out and amount to nothing in September.
But the Democrats are worried, and Obama's allies last week started trying to create a competing narrative to the GOP's negative story line. The Democratic National Committee and other liberal groups are organizing 2,000 pro-healthcare-reform events between now and September 8, when Congress returns from its August recess—amounting to what a Democratic spokesman said will be a "national grass-roots push" for healthcare overhaul. The events will focus on rallies, phone banks, and a bus tour in which prominent Democrats will try to marshal support in 11 cities, including Phoenix, Denver, and Indianapolis.