WASHINGTON (AP) - The initial blush of President Barack Obama's health care
triumph immediately gives way to a sober political reality —
he must sell the landmark legislation to an angry and unpredictable
electorate, still reeling from the recession.
Voters may not buy it.
And that could mean a disastrous midterm election year for Obama
and his fellow Democrats.
"We proved that this government — a government of the
people and by the people — still works for the people," the
president said late Sunday, beginning his sales pitch from the
White House one hour after Congress passed the sweeping
"This isn't radical reform but it is major reform," he added.
"This is what change looks like."
Obama and the Democrats are certain to look for a much-needed
political lift from the legislation, a capstone for a young
presidency and a party after decades of trying to remake the
nation's health care system.
But there's no guarantee they'll get it.
For now at least, Obama is savoring victory; he looks strong,
principled and effective for getting something huge done in a city
many Americans detest.
Still, the near-term reward could easily be forgotten come
This campaign season already has been unforgiving for the White
House and the Democratic Party, with a monumental loss in the
Massachusetts Senate election and a spate of debilitating
congressional retirements. And conditions seem ripe for the
electorate to punish the party in power.
Voters are furious. They hate Washington. They also detest
incumbents. They're concerned most about the economy. And
unemployment that's hovering near 10 percent. They're also split
over whether Obama's health plan is good for a nation with enormous
budget deficits and climbing debt.
How those variables play out is anyone's guess.
Even so, Obama reassured rank-and-file Democrats before they
cast what he rightly called a tough vote.
"It will end up being the smart thing to do politically because
I believe that good policy is good politics," the president said
Saturday at the Capitol.
Nearby, enraged tea party protesters filled the grounds and the
steps of adjacent office buildings, railing against the measure and
promising to fire lawmakers who backed it. Some cursed and yelled
racial epithets at black lawmakers.
Protesters were back Sunday, the message the same: "Kill the
Ahead of the vote, a Gallup poll showed more Americans believe
the measure will make things worse rather than better for the
country as a whole and for them personally. And most polls show
most people don't like the plan although some surveys showed
Americans giving high marks to individual elements.
"It's very unusual that you have a major policy that doesn't
have a majority of support in the public," said George Edwards, a
Texas A&M University presidential historian. "When they enjoy
the benefits of the bill, they may come around. But that may take
Also unclear is how voters will treat Republicans. Some of the
measure's elements go into effect immediately, such as coverage for
children on their parents' policy until age 26 and prescription
drug benefits for seniors. Republicans could be tagged
obstructionists if the electorate likes these provisions and if the
From now on, Obama and the Democrats will promote the measure's
benefits while countering Republican nay-saying and griping about
process. The president also will focus primarily on voters' most
pressing concern — jobs. And that may endear him to voters
more than the passage of his signature domestic issue.
Obama's immediate concern is holding Democratic majorities in
Congress. His own political re-election is a while off, but the
White House is almost surely focused on it, too.
His job-performance rating is hovering near 50 percent and may
not rise even after he put so much political capital on the
Past presidents have either seen their poll numbers stay the
same or dip following passage of divisive, though history-making,
That was true for Lyndon B. Johnson's Civil Rights Act and Great
Society agenda in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan's economic measures in
the 1980s, and George W. Bush's tax cuts in the early 2000s. The
exception was Bill Clinton, who saw his support increase in the
1990s after signing a contentious budget measure and welfare reform
legislation. But it eventually fell.
Obama's political boost may come later.
"There's a bump for the history books," said Fred Greenstein, a
Princeton University presidential scholar. "When historians ask if
this is a kind of squandered presidency, there will be health care
to point to."
The immediate future is less certain.
Will voters give Obama credit for addressing the issue if many
Americans won't feel most changes immediately? Or will voters
punish Democrats for a year of partisan wrangling that has
exacerbated Americans' anti-Washington feelings and diverted focus
from the economy? Will health care even be on the minds of
Americans struggling through recession?
Throughout the yearlong debate, the GOP derided the bill as
"socialized medicine" and warned that it would be devastating. But
Republicans may find themselves looking sheepish given that the
status quo won't change for most people for years.
Democrats now have an accomplishment around which to unite.
Also, critical constituencies like senior citizens and young voters
will feel change soon. And independent voters may praise Obama for
showing that a Democratic majority can make Washington work.
Still, Democrats face a public fed up with Washington and
disappointed by a president elected to change it. A year of bitter
haggling and legislative maneuvering may feed into the argument
— successfully stoked by Republicans — that Democrats
have failed to fix Washington.
That's the reason some Democrats now worry about losing control
"The voters will have their say on the politics," says White
House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Still, he adds: "The president
was and the Congress were sent here to address the problems that
people face in this country, and that's what voters want us to
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics
for The Associated Press since 2003.