The president’s rebound

The GOP is off message. Very few Americans outside the Beltway care about reconciliation or understand why there even is a filibuster. To most, it is just inside politics. And as for voters’ attitude toward the proposed bill … well, it moves around a lot and it all depends on when and how you ask the question.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is fond of saying Americans oppose the president’s healthcare plan 55 percent to 37. But recent polls, since the Massachusetts election, show support building again. Post-Massachusetts was the nadir of support for the plan. The most recent Ipsos study has a majority of Americans supporting the current proposal or hoping for an even stronger package. In fact, of the 47 percent who oppose the plan, over a third do so because the reforms don’t go far enough.

Pollster.com averages a blend of public surveys. They show support for the Democrat proposals has moved into a statistical tie — 46 percent favor and 47 percent oppose. Other polls, like the ABC/Washington Post and Pew studies, for example, reject the Republican view that we should just start over. Nearly two-thirds in both surveys want Congress to keep pushing for a solution. And the solutions most Americans want track very nicely with key elements of the Obama/House/Senate proposals. Overarching insurance reforms are wildly popular. Establishing an “exchange” to provide choice and competition and providing subsidies to low-income individuals and tax credits to small businesses all get very high marks — in most cases over 50 points more favorable than opposed.

You have to conclude from this research that the tide may well be shifting toward majority support for the Democrats’ reform proposal. There is no question that all the debate in Washington has raised questions — but what has been proposed is pretty much what people want. If the president continues to focus on the changes to the healthcare coverage people will get and the abuses of insurers, he should continue to gain ground. He is on message. If he stays there, he will win. Ultimately, recalcitrant Democrats will conclude they have to vote for a bill because doing nothing makes them more vulnerable than doing something.

So what do these messaging strategies suggest about the 2010 elections — will Congress change hands? Not likely. Certainly there will be a significant loss of seats in the House, possibly as many as 25. But history and current events suggest the GOP will fall far short of winning the 40 seats it needs for control. A report from a very competent Republican pollster, Steve Lombardo, and an analysis from Democrat pollster Mark Mellman in Wednesday’s copy of this newspaper make clear that is the case.

Lombardo compares 2010 to 1982 — this election will be a referendum on President Obama, just as that one was on President Reagan. Then, as now, our economy was in the tank. Unemployment was still rising in ’82. Reagan’s favorable numbers at one point dropped to under 40 percent. The Republicans lost 26 seats in Congress.

Obama will likely have won a healthcare victory, and people will be focused like a laser on the economy. All the angst of the past eight or nine months will be forgotten as voters see the front-loaded benefits of healthcare reform. I’m no economic seer — one look at my portfolio confirms that — but it seems likely that we will have hit bottom and are moving into an upturn in terms of jobs. Obama’s approval ratings, even in these worst of times, hover around 50 percent — not great, but significantly better than Reagan’s 42 percent on Election Day 1982.

I don’t want to put words in Mark Mellman’s mouth, but Obama is holding at 50 percent largely because people like him. “[P]opular people are more persuasive,” Mellman writes. Absent potential disasters like the complete collapse of the commercial real estate market or a devastating setback in Iraq or Afghanistan, Obama will still be popular come Election Day, the economy may well be on the rebound and the messages of the spring of 2010 will bear fruit in the fall.


Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com