01.17.11

Obama's Health Care Wimp Out

The GOP’s drive to repeal health-care reform is an uphill battle, given the program’s renewed popularity. But the White House can’t be bothered to defend its achievement.

The GOP is set to make its first major act as the new sheriff in town a faux-repeal of Obamacare.

Republicans are doing this, they loudly proclaim, because it’s what Americans want. They may have to tone down their job- killing language in the wake of the Tucson shootings, which caused a week’s delay in the vote, but they are convinced they have a mandate to deep-six the law.

Not quite: A January 16 Associated Press-GfK poll found that “strong opposition” to the landmark health-care law is at a measly 30 percent, and only about one in four respondents supported total repeal. The fever for repeal even seems to be breaking for Republicans, plummeting from 61 percent after the elections to 49 percent today.

“So what?” say supporters of repeal. After all, the Republicans won the election and they should be able to pursue whatever goals they want. True enough. But they may want to consider other leaders who misread electoral success—such as President Bush, who declared after his reelection in ’04: "The people made it clear what they wanted. I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it."

Bush then tried to privatize Social Security and spent himself down to rock-bottom approval ratings. This kind of willful misreading of mandates is epidemic in Washington. In 2009, there was Robert Gibbs slapping down opponents of the economic stimulus saying, “We had that debate in particular—we kept score last November and we won.” President Obama imparted the same message, telling griping GOP members of Congress in a private meeting, “ I won.”

We all know how that turned out.

But if the GOP is going to forge ahead with this repeal nonsense, the Democrats should be able to exploit it as the insidious farce that it is.

The truth is, most Americans don’t support full repeal, and they would be quite angry if they realized that the GOP was trying to take away protections from lifetime and annual caps, denial of coverage for preexisting conditions and being dropped from your health insurance once you got sick, among many other popular provisions in the health-care law.

Why the White House isn’t screaming this from the rooftops remains a mystery.

The GOP approach, by the way, would leave tens of millions of Americans uninsured, which translates into unnecessary deaths. A 2009 Harvard study found “that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts.” They estimated that lack of health insurance causes nearly 45,000 excess deaths annually.

All this suggests a pretty strong hand for the White House, which one would expect would be gearing up for a major rebuttal of the festival of misinformation surrounding the repeal effort.

Dream on.

Time and again, the GOP smartly takes advantage of White House arrogance and runs circles around the administration, knowing that the Obama team will only engage when the fight is practically done.

There is no evidence there is a White House effort under way. Prior to the Tucson tragedy, they were greeting the upcoming repeal efforts with a group yawn.

Gibbs was asked in a press briefing about how active the president would be in defending the health-care legislation. He dismissed repeal efforts as just “a bit of huff and puff." Incredibly, Gibbs said the president would not be making any major speeches to make his case because,  “The president’s position is pretty well known.”

The White House—and most Democrats—believe that the GOP repeal shenanigans are going to backfire because Americans want Congress focused on getting the economy back on track.

Unfortunately we have a history of the White House believing that Americans are just going to randomly stumble on facts to counter the misinformation the Boehner Gang is telling them. According to polls, only 15 percent of Americans know that CBO said Obamacare will reduce the deficit. And 55 percent believe the CBO has said the legislation will increase the deficit.” If Obama’s position is really so well known, then how did this happen?

The GOP continues to use deficit reduction as a fig leaf even though a January CBO score warned that repealing health-care reform would increase the deficit by a whopping $230 billion over the first 10 years.

Time and again, the GOP smartly takes advantage of White House arrogance and runs circles around the administration, knowing that the Obama team will only engage when the fight is practically done.

In this case, the repeal efforts will go nowhere now, but the GOP is laying the groundwork to repeal health care if it eventually gains the power to do so—and to justify possible attempts to choke off funding for parts of the law. In the meantime, Republicans will stage political theater to keep misrepresenting the legislation.

In the December Washington Post poll, Obama enjoyed a strong preference among voters on who they trusted most to handle health-care reform and help the middle class. Obama dominated on health care 51-38, and edged Republicans on the middle class question, 53-48. Obama made a universally praised speech in Tucson. But rather than using the credibility conferred by public support to expose this repeal circus for what it is, the president is apparently going to sit this one out.

So much for the bully pulpit.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.