White House strategists predict that President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders will finally push healthcare legislation over the finish line very soon. Key Democrats are rallying behind the legislation, including Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Dale Kildee of Michigan. And the Democrats are already planning to use their anticipated victory as a springboard to the political high ground.
The core of the new strategy is to pivot away from trying to justify or explain the wrangling that has kept healthcare stuck in the congressional sausage factory for so long and instead shift to promoting the substance of what's actually being done. And that could be a smart move.
President Obama signaled a new combativeness in his speech at Arcadia University in suburban Philadelphia last Monday. He went on the offensive against insurance companies and accused them of taking advantage of everyday Americans. "How much higher do premiums have to rise before we do something about it?" the shirt-sleeved president asked in a spirited, campaign-style appearance. He declared, "The United States Congress owes the American people a final up or down vote on healthcare." Many Democrats rejoiced at the return of the aggressive defender of the middle class from the 2008 campaign.
Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says that finally overhauling healthcare will make all the difference for the beleaguered Democratic majority in Congress and for President Obama and will lead to their recovery from sagging job-approval ratings. Just as important, many of the Republican claims about the bill will be proved false, Kaine says, such as the warning that the measure would create "death panels" to decide who receives adequate care.
Turning public opinion around won't be easy because the GOP has inspired such deep doubts about the legislation. And those attacks have helped lift the morale of conservatives across the country. While Democrats lead Republicans by 47 to 46 percent when registered voters are asked which party they support in local congressional elections, according to the latest Gallup Poll, 66 percent of Republicans say they are very enthusiastic or somewhat enthusiastic about voting in November, compared with only 54 percent of Democrats.
But despite the GOP opposition, the Democrats do have cause for some optimism. Voters are about evenly split over Obama's plan in Congress, with 41 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed, and many Americans' views remain in flux. "Public opinion is not immutable," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "Opinions change along with conditions." He agrees that final passage of healthcare will provide an important opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to trumpet their ability to govern on their own. Few if any GOP legislators are expected to vote for the Democratic plan.
Marshall adds that the GOP is pigeonholing itself as the obstructionist party. "The Republicans have gone so far off the rails" that many conservatives are "treating the commander in chief as an alien," Marshall argues. "The Republican mainstream doesn't seem to be there anymore. Who are the elders who say the party needs to regain its balance? . . . They let their crackpots loose, and to me, that's scary." He was referring to some members of the tea-party movement and others who have harshly criticized Obama in personal and political terms.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says two events have caught voters' attention and encouraged them to take a fresh and more positive look at Obamacare. One was the spate of insurance-rate increases predicted around the country, which shook people's confidence in the status quo. The second event was a highly publicized filibuster by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky against extensions of unemployment and healthcare assistance. Bunning's stubbornness dramatized the issue of GOP obstructionism in a very negative way, Greenberg says.
If the Democrats pass healthcare, Obama is expected to use the momentum to move on to several other big-ticket issues, such as reforming the financial industry, passing other job-creation measures, and perhaps pushing for energy and environmental initiatives. "Certainly," White House counselor David Axelrod told me, "accomplishing this would be helpful in terms of the atmospherics of this town because in Washington, you're always graded by your W's [wins] and your L"s [losses]." And if the unemployment rate drops much below the current 9.7 percent in the next few months, that would allow voters to see a ray of light on the overall economy, boosting the incumbent party just in time for the fall elections. At least that is the latest White House theory.