Obama Poised to Take Advantage of Status Quo in 2012

Medicare reform backlash is an even bigger problem for 2012 than Republicans perhaps realize.

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Talk to Republicans lately about the upcoming presidential campaign, and inevitably you’ll hear reassuring things like, “He can’t run on ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ this time around. He’s gonna have to defend an actual record.”

This is certainly true, as far as it goes. (Last week, I talked about the challenges Obama will face no matter who wins the GOP nomination.)

But, irony of ironies, President Obama is also poised to enjoy the advantages of familiarity and status-quo inertia that he railed against as a candidate.

A Drudge headline sounds an early alarm: “Press yawns at Republicans.” Its link points to a characteristically insidery, but nevertheless troubling, Politico story about national news media veterans’ sense that the ’12 race is shaping up to be like that of 1996: incumbent Democrat who suffered midterm catastrophe prevails against boring Republican. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP 2012 field.]

(As a sidenote: Boring Republican Tim Pawlenty is well aware of this creeping narrative, and was palpably annoyed at the attention paid last weekend to Sarah Palin’s “bus tour,” which came at the expense of coverage of his ongoing—and, unlike Palin's, official—campaign rollout.)

On top of running against a reasonably well-liked incumbent, the Bob Dole of 2012 will have to deal sensitively with the issue of dislodging the country’s first black president. Put simply, nonideological centrist voters like having a black president—and they’re “fundamentally rooting for the guy,” a New Hampshire GOP official told the Huffington Post. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]

This coveted bloc will be innately receptive to what the Obama campaign will claim as accomplishments: having rescued the economy from the brink of depression, and put it on a path of modest growth in a period of global volatility; having revived the American car industry; having extended healthcare coverage to almost every American; having reformed the financial industry and created new protections to vulnerable consumers; etc.

Most important of all, perhaps, is that Obama, through a combination of caution and cowardliness, has positioned himself as the bulwark of Medicare As We Know It.

Former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson tries gamely to make hay of the GOP’s Ryan Plan Predicament, conceding that major reforms often seem “confusing” to voters who fear change and resent “meddling officials.” [Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?]

This is an even bigger problem than Republicans perhaps realize.

Voters in the mid-’90s loved the idea of “ending welfare as know it.” That’s because most voters aren’t on welfare, and never will be. That, obviously, is not the case with Medicare. (According to CNN, seniors account substantially for the latest uptick in Obama’s approval rating.)

Depending on how you look at it, Obama has promised to wring wasteful spending from the Medicare system; he will turn a few knobs, but otherwise keep the program as-is.

My friend Ramesh Ponnuru makes the alternative case: “The Democratic plan is cutting payment rates so that Medicare becomes as lousy a program as Medicaid, with doctors refusing to participate in it. The Democratic plan is letting an unelected board decide which treatments won’t get funded.”

The problem with this is that 1) Medicaid is more popular than one might think; and 2) Medicare beneficiaries already are familiar with unpleasant, incremental changes to the program: namely, increasing premiums.

And aren’t younger voters who would actually be affected by the Ryan plan equally familiar with private insurance companies’ adverse coverage decisions? What’s going to seem more tolerant to such voters? Stingier coverage under the same basic single-payer rubric, or a top-to-bottom overhaul of the program?

The fact is, a true, consumer-driven healthcare market is simply an unrealized phantom of an idea—and the 2012 electorate is going to be deeply susceptible to a campaign that stokes skepticism about it.

We’re a long way from 2008’s slogan “Hope, Not Fear.”

Because in 2012, fear is going to be Obama’s best friend.

  • Check out a slide show of the 2012 GOP primaries: Who's in and who's out.
  • See editorial cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.
  • Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?