Is it time for Obama to change course on health care policy?

During a press briefing on August 13, 2009, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted that the American people may not be completely on board with the Administration reform efforts but argued that overall the Americans support the notion of health care. Mr. Gibbs suggested that misconceptions were probably partly to blame for the lack of a higher rate of acceptance of the Administration’s efforts and that Mr. Obama’s town hall meetings were in response to this. “…the President isn’t out doing town hall meetings just for his health.”

Hopefully no pun was intended by Mr. Gibbs’ quip but depending on the poll results you subscribe to, Mr. Obama may not be doing as well as he needs to in order to sell his overall plan. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released on August 4, 2009, fifty percent of those questioned say they supported the president’s plan while 45 percent were opposed. A more recent Gallop poll cited by the L.A. Times on August 13, 2009 put the president’s approval numbers at 43% while the percentage of responders disapproving his approach to health care came in at 49%.

We probably won’t know what impact Mr. Obama’s trek through midwest and western states will have on his approval ratings until next week. With three more weeks left until Congress ends its recess and a 1,000 pages of legislation to review, the press and pundits will have a lot of time to take major shots across the bow at a big target. At this point, Mr. Obama could continue to move the ship of state through treacherous policy waters in hopes that, as most analysts predict, he will get some type of health care legislation and leave the debate with a win albeit bruised. His other option would be to turn the ship around and dock in the safe harbor of “do-over”. There have been a few calls from the right to do just that along with the observation that there is still time to do health care right.

The problem with starting over from scratch is that the president will look indecisive and weak. He can ill-afford creating such a perception especially as the country draws closer to mid-term elections in 2010. There is also the president’s own election time table. With Mitt Romney quietly testing the waters, Mr. Obama need not throw chum into those very waters. More important is Mr. Obama’s legacy. He is pinning his domestic agenda on health care. Bill Clinton bounced back in 1994 from his failed attempt to reform the health care system only because he had a relatively good economy under his belt and had a targeted victory in Bosnia and a few air strikes at Saddam Hussein to distract the nation.

Mr. Obama does not have the type of cover Mr. Clinton had. The economy is still poor and the Administration is digging itself deeper into an Afghanistan quagmire while shooting its way out of Iraq. To save his legacy, Mr. Obama will have to govern from the middle; govern from reason. Rather than scuttle the ship or run her aground, Mr. Obama should release some ballast and keep some portion of his plan afloat. He can do this by focusing the legislation on one health care problem at a time; being a bit marginal in his re-write of health care policy. For example, Mr. Obama could address the 47 million uninsured consumers of health care by subsidizing their out-of-pocket expenses via a universal care access fund. By focusing on this population, Mr. Obama can get rid of the rest of the proposals House Democrats have ill-advisedly provided in HR 3200, thus creating a leaner bill that even conservatives may be able to get on board with.

It takes strength to say our direction is wrong so lets fine tune it. No one will fault Mr. Obama for making an executive decision to do the practical thing. It would be foolhardy to run his ship aground with an unpopular proposal that the people do not want.


About Alton Drew

Alton Drew brings a straight forward and insightful brand of political market intelligence. Alton Drew graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can also follow Alton Drew on Twitter @altondrew.
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