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Opposition To Obama's Health Care Overhaul Hardens

Alex Wong
Getty Images

President Obama's plan to make a rare address to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday has been characterized as an all-in effort to shore up support for his attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system.

After a month of rancorous town hall meetings, partisan advertisements, fearmongering and viral e-mails, it's clear that the president needs the bully pulpit to revive his effort.

But despite the well-televised pockets of tumult that have surrounded the issue of remaking health care over the past several weeks, it turns out that August did not destroy public support for Obama's overhaul.


However, it did harden the resolve of skeptics.

"Health care support did not show much change in our poll over the last month," says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. "But intensity is more on the side of opponents."

About 46 percent of those surveyed in late August said they generally oppose the handful of health care bills now before Congress; 39 percent voiced general support for the bills. A month earlier, the margin was 44 percent opposed, 38 percent in favor.

"There is still support for the goals of reform — absolutely — from universal coverage to the idea of preventing insurance companies from dropping those with pre-existing conditions," Doherty says. "That's gotten overshadowed by events of the last three or four weeks."

That may be good news for Obama and supporters of a significant remaking of health care. However, it's not the only news.


Fervor Gap: Intensity With The Opposition

Though the Pew study found that support remained steady, a CNN/Opinion Research poll released Wednesday showed more volatility.

At the end of August, 51 percent opposed what CNN pollsters described to survey-takers as "Obama's plan to reform health care," with 48 percent in favor. The poll's July margin was 50 percent in favor, 45 percent opposed.

More troubling for the administration and overhaul proponents, however, is the conservatives' passion about the issue, which overshadows that on the left.

Survey numbers may show only minor shifts in support or opposition to health care bills, conservative pollster Whit Ayres says, "but what you've also got to factor into that sort of response is intensity.

"We have been seeing over the last several weeks a growth in intensity on the opposition's side," Ayres says. "August jelled the opposition."

Whether or not the anti-health care, anti-Obama acrimony on display at some town hall meetings was representative, the fervor gap between the right and left is fully reflected in recent surveys.

Pew found that 72 percent of conservative Republicans were "very strongly" opposed to health care bills now being considered; only 52 percent of liberal Democrats said they were "very strongly" in favor of those same bills.

"We were reminded after the death of Ted Kennedy that this has been a liberal goal for a long time, but conservative opponents are much more animated," Doherty says.

The CNN survey also found an overall hardening of opposition.

Forty-one percent of those surveyed in August said they "oppose strongly" Obama's "plan to reform health care," up from 33 percent in July. A quarter of those surveyed said they strongly favor his plan.

But What Plan?

The White House is promising significantly more detail about the president's health care plans next week. And it has been assiduously getting word out that private talks are ongoing with moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine in an effort to hammer out a proposal that could attract the support of a Republican senator or two.

Snowe is one of three members of the so-called "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of senators who serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which has been struggling to come up with a bill expected to set the parameters of the overhaul plan.

But with the two other Republican gang members, Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, now balking at a bipartisan deal, Snowe has become the focus.

Overhaul proponents are hoping that the frenzy of negotiations — with Snowe and within the Democratic caucus — will provide the president concrete details he can share with a public hungry for a bill they can sink their teeth into.

"The last month has been about filling in the details, and you ended up with the side issue of death panels and things like that," Doherty said. "The public has been somewhat in the dark and of the view that the president has not been particularly clear in laying out what he wants from this."

And specifically, he has not been clear enough about what's in it for them and their families, just how it's going to be paid for and by whom.

Public Confused About Benefits Of An Overhaul

Recent surveys show that there is an across-the-board uncertainty: about how or whether a health care overhaul will affect individuals or the country as a whole; and about how changes and restrictions needed to pay for it would affect households.

"The rub comes on paying for it: tighter restrictions on Medicare? Taxing employee benefits?" Doherty says.

In Pew's survey, 39 percent said they believed the country would be "better off" with "health care reform"; 32 percent said "worse off." But only 27 percent perceived that they would be better off personally under reform, with 30 percent suspecting they'd be worse off, and 36 percent predicting not much difference.

All of this comes at a time when favorability ratings for Congress are at historic lows, Democrats are losing ground on public perceptions of their ability to manage the government, and about just over half of Americans say they have confidence in the president to deal with health care reform.

But there is still opportunity, Ayres says.

"It's entirely possible to craft a bill that is far less expensive and does what many Americans want: guarantee them access to private insurance, regardless of pre-existing conditions or loss of job," he says, "and controlling costs by any means possible."

That includes medical malpractice tort reform, he says.

Tort reform and a public insurance option are two issues that those on both sides of the debate are waiting for the president to weigh in on.

Public Appetite For This Change?

Obama's job remains daunting.

Pew has since 1987 done a major survey every four years on political values, asking the same questions in the same order.

"When we did it this spring," Doherty says, after Obama's historic election, "we saw that there was really no increased appetite for a government role in the expansion of the safety net."

In fact, when asked if the government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt, 48 percent said yes this year. Two years ago, 54 percent answered in the affirmative.

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We were reminded after the death of Ted Kennedy that this has been a liberal goal for a long time, but conservative opponents are much more animated.