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Published: Saturday, 8/1/2009

Health reform is in trouble

HERE'S a data point that should give liberals pause: There is no statistically significant difference between the proportion of Americans who think ill of Sarah Palin and the proportion of Americans who disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as President.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,001 adults released July 24, 40 percent of respondents viewed Ms. Palin positively, 53 percent viewed her negatively.

In a Rasmussen poll of 1,500 likely voters released Monday, 49 percent of respondents at least somewhat approved of the job Mr. Obama is doing as president, while 50 percent disapproved.

The margin of error for both polls was plus or minus 3 percent, so Ms. Palin's negative numbers and Mr. Obama's fall within it.

This is remarkable, when one considers that Mr. Obama is constantly in the news and has received far more favorable news coverage than any other president in modern history. Since the end of the presidential campaign, Ms. Palin tends to make national news only when someone takes shots at her or her family.

Pundits say Ms. Palin's high negatives doom any chance she might have to be president, which may be so. But if it is so, what do Mr. Obama's comparably high negatives say about Democratic prospects in the midterm elections?

You may not have thought about this, but I suspect the 66 Democrats in the House who represent districts that were carried either by George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008 are thinking about it a lot.

Barack Obama has had a poor month, and an especially bad week. But those on conservative Web sites who crow that his popularity is "plummeting" or in "free fall" are guilty of grotesque exaggeration. At this point, the President is not a liability for Democrats, as George W. Bush was for Republicans in 2006 and 2008. He's just no longer much of an asset.

This is especially so for the 66 Democrats mentioned above, because Mr. Obama is much more popular in the heavily Democratic districts along both coasts than he is in swing districts in the heartland.

Ordinarily, opinion polls this far in advance of an election don't mean much. But they mean more this time because of the influence they're likely to have on how the 66 members of Congress and a few others vote on Mr. Obama's signature issue.

Despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's best efforts, the House couldn't manage to vote on health-care reform before its August recess began on Friday. At town meetings over the next couple of weeks, lawmakers who support the President's plan will face sharp questions. In a Rasmussen poll released July 22, 44 percent of respondents supported Mr. Obama's effort; 53 percent were opposed.

The poll's internals suggest the situation is worse for Mr. Obama than the overall numbers indicate. The only age demographic to express support for the plan were 18 to 29-year-olds, which, the 66 members of Congress can tell you, is the demographic least likely to vote in midterm elections.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) said health-care reform could be Mr. Obama's "Waterloo." I think that's an overstatement. But the President may not. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) said a Democratic congressman from his state told him that during a meeting in the White House, Mr. Obama told recalcitrant Democrats, "You're going to destroy my presidency."

That would be true only if the President makes it so. The typical American doesn't care much about the inside baseball of winning and losing in Washington. Swing voters don't want the health-care bill to pass in anything like its present form, but are not otherwise hostile to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama has two futures before him. Jimmy Carter was popular when he was talking vaguely about hope and change. But when he dealt badly with real-world circumstances, he became first a laughingstock, then a landslide loser for re-election.

Bill Clinton got off to a rocky start, ironically chiefly because of his plans to nationalize health care. But by shifting his focus (and with a little help from Republican overreach) he was able comfortably to win re-election.

Will Mr. Obama be more like Mr. Carter or more like Mr. Clinton? It may depend on how much of his ego is wrapped up in the health-care bill.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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