Tuesday, April 17, 2012


For those willing to look, the court has ruled on President Obama’s health care plan - the court of public opinion, that is. A look at recent polling only reinforces the electorate’s negative perception of the administration’s health care overhaul. Most troubling for the White House is that the verdict - and its political consequences - actually could get worse.

Two recently released polls do not simply confirm the public’s dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama’s plan, they show how dangerously deep it is.

On March 26, CNN/ORCInternational released a poll of 1,014 adults showing that only 43 percent favor the law. Worse, 43 percent favor overturning some provisions of Obamacare and 30 percent favor overturning the entire law. Only 23 percent wanted the law to be kept as is.

There was even more detail and even worse news for the administration in a CBSNews/N.Y.Times survey of 986 adults released the same day. This poll found only 36 percent of Americans approve of the law and just 26 percent want to retain it without change.

The reason for these respondents’ negativity became clear from their verdict of its effect on them. Only 19 percent thought it would help them personally. Only 15 percent thought it would decrease their health costs, while 52 percent thought it would increase them. Thirty-three percent believed it would reduce the quality of health care they received, while only 17 percent expected it to increase their quality of care.

This negativity has serious implications. The administration’s health care law was not popular before. That’s no surprise - not to Americans and not to the White House. There’s a reason why health care was not mentioned at all in this year’s State of the Union speech and why its two-year anniversary was virtually ignored by the White House.

The Supreme Court’s pending ruling on Obamacare only serves to raise the profile of something that the White House apparently would like to have lower. That profile will remain raised for the next three months as we wait and speculate on the court’s decision. But that is nothing compared to what will happen when the court finally rules.

There are many ways the court could rule; however, there are limited ways the public will react.

If the court upholds the law, does anyone believe that this will reverse the negative opinion that Americans still hold after two years? It is likely to stoke the opposition’s negative opinion - and there is no shortage of that.

If the court strikes it down entirely, some have said this could help the administration by eliminating its opponents’ complaints and raising its supporters’ fervor. In what other public issues have opponents gone silent because of a favorable court ruling? As for raising its supporters’ energy, those who should be the most disappointed are those who supported the law without change - and polling shows this group only comprises about 1 in 4 Americans.

The only beneficial political outcome for the administration would seem to be for the court to overturn part of the law - say, the individual mandate - and hope this creates a sympathetic coalition of those supporting some or all of the law. Pulling against your own signature accomplishment is hardly a pleasant scenario for the White House.

The administration appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Actually, it is stuck between the court of public opinion and the Supreme Court. It already has lost the public and perhaps its best outcome would be to lose, at least in part, in the court ruling as well. Failing a turnaround in fortune, Obamacare might contribute to a lost election in November.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.

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