Analysis: Economy, not health care, will be focus

Health care AnalysisLosers in a brutal struggle with President Barack Obama, Republicans now hope voter anger over newly enacted health care legislation will propel them to victory in midterm elections this fall.

Forget about it.

No matter the impact of health care, the economy still matters most ? unemployment in particular ? in a country struggling to emerge from the deepest recession in decades.

In poll after poll, it isn’t even close.

A CBS/New York Times poll taken last month, when the health care debate was in a lull, showed 52 percent of those surveyed identified the economy as their top priority. Health care was a distant second at 13 percent.

The gap closed somewhat this month as Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress put more of a focus on the legislation, but not by enough to upend the public’s order of priorities. A CNN/Opinion research survey in mid-March showed the economy was the top issue, at 43 percent of those polled, with health care at 23 percent.

“There is still one number that matters most on Election Day, and that is the unemployment number,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. “If unemployment is where it is now (9.7 percent nationally), people are going to be very unhappy and looking for a change.

“If it were to get to 8 percent, that would get a different result,” he added.

For all the recent focus on health care, this is hardly news to Obama, his aides or other Democrats who anxiously scan economic statistics for signs of job growth that have yet to materialize.

“Starting hopefully in early April, you’re going to see job growth, not job negative,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the head of the Democratic senatorial campaign effort.

It’s a Democratic hope that has only grown stronger since January, when Republicans captured the Senate seat that Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had held for nearly a half-century.

Underscoring their eagerness to switch issues, a few House Democrats held a news conference before Congress began its vacation at week’s end to say they were looking forward to working on economic concerns when they returned.

It’s also likely that both parties will try to connect the economy and health care in the minds of the voters heading into the fall campaign.

“Americans are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ but Democrats remain focused on this job-killing government takeover of health care,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said as Obama’s allies were pushing their legislation through Congress.

Democrats emphasized a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the legislation could cut red ink.

“This is … one of the biggest deficit reduction measures in history ? over $1.3 trillion (over 20 years) that will help put us on the path of fiscal responsibility,” Obama told House Democrats days before they passed the measure.

Not that the steadfastly partisan struggle over health care won’t matter in the fall, when control of Congress will be at stake.

Within hours of the legislation’s passage, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his party would campaign to “repeal and replace” Obama’s prized accomplishment.

The first half of that pledge is a Republican fantasy as long as Obama is in the White House, as GOP leaders surely understand. Coming up with an alternative that his party can unify behind in the fall may or may not prove possible, or even politically desirable.

But no matter.

A Washington Post poll released Sunday reported that half of those surveyed oppose the changes included in the legislation. Among that group, 86 percent favor an effort to cancel them, either in Congress or the courts.
In political terms, the new mantra seems designed to solidify the GOP political base, and appeal to two target groups:

  • The anti-government tea party activists, who staged sometimes unruly demonstrations outside the Capitol a week ago and want simply to rip out the new law before it can take root.
  • Swing voters who want improvements made to the existing health care system, but fear that the president and Democrats went too far.

Democrats argue ? hope, really ? that lagging support for the health care legislation is the result of months of Republican distortions as far back as last summer’s debunked charges that “death panels” would decide the fate of elderly Medicare recipients.

Now Democrats hope they can argue successfully that they can govern effectively, and they are promoting a series of highly popular changes that will take effect in the next six months.

Small businesses will be eligible for tax credits to help them cover the cost of insurance for employees, Obama said in Iowa a few days ago. And older Americans will receive a $250 rebate from the government if they have high prescription drug costs. Seniors generally vote in disproportionately high numbers in midterm elections.
“This year, insurance companies will no longer be able to drop people’s coverage when they get sick, or place lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits on the amount of care they can receive,” the president added.

“This is the reform that some folks in Washington are still hollering about. And now that it’s passed, they’re already promising to repeal it. … Well, I say go for it.”

Republicans indeed appear determined to go for it.

But come the fall, they’ll no doubt remember that the economy comes first.

Source: The Associated Press