Published in The Hill's Congress Blog, September 8, 2009
President Obama has made health reform a legacy issue by deciding to place it at the top of his domestic policy agenda. But for someone who was so atuned to the voters during the 2008 presidential campaign, this is a major miscalculation.
Poll after poll shows that the American people believe that getting the economy back on track should be the president’s first priority. Only one person in five believes that health care should be his top concern.
But by calling for a joint session of Congress to call for passage of health reform legislation, Mr. Obama guarantees that tomorrow night’s speech will be the turning point in his young presidency. If he succeeds, then he will be seen as virtually unstoppable, able to push his agenda even in the face of clear opposition from the American people. But if he fails, he will struggle to pass any other parts of his reform agenda.
In town hall meetings across the country in August and in virtually every opinion poll taken over the summer, the American people say they are increasingly fearful about the changes and cost of the president’s sweeping reform plan. They are very concerned about the nation’s ballooning debt and are highly reluctant to add to it with another big health spending program. And they are frightened about what health reform would mean for them and their access to medical care.
The biggest problem that the president has right now is the growing distrust of the American people. They don’t see, for example, how spending another $1 trillion on health care can lower health costs. They don’t believe his assurances that if they like the coverage they have now, that they can keep it, when independent studies show that millions of people will lose their current coverage, many involuntarily. And they are concerned that government bureaucrats will start deciding whether they should take the blue pill or the red pill or take pain killers rather than get surgery, as Dr. Obama has suggested.
It is not at all clear that stirring oratory before cheering members of Congress and a nationally televised audience will be able to put these fears to rest, especially with more and more conservative Democrats are expressing their wariness about a big reform agenda.
Mr. Obama is making a big gamble, and the stakes for the success of his presidency could not be higher.