Even among the president's base, people are ambivalent. More people will be happy if something passes, even without a public option, than if nothing passes. But for 2010, the president needs his base to be more than happy. He needs them to be ecstatic. In the NBC poll, most of the increase in those who thought reform was a "bad idea" comes from some of the president's core support groups, folks upset about the lost public option. Lately, this has taken a public form. In addition to Dean, there are liberals like Rep. Anthony Weiner and Sen. Russ Feingold, who say the president has not been assertive enough. (If the president isn't enthusiastic in pushing the bill, voters are also likely to be less enthusiastic.)
Plus, people want the president to work on the economy. Every poll out this week continues the long-term trend: The economy is their No. 1 concern, and people want to see results in their wallets not just on the graphs. If health care reform passes, that might be nice. But for those voters who won't get coverage because of it, the direct benefit will be hard to grasp. That's why the White House and Democratic strategists are gearing up for a concerted effort to sell the benefits of health care reform after it passes. This will include arguments for what's in the bill—and the argument that improvements will be made between the bill's passage and implementation in 2014.
The question is whether the president can be more successful in making the case for health care after it passes than beforehand. So far, the more he has talked about it, the worse reform has fared in the public mind and the worse the public has felt about his handling of the issue. Afterward, of course, the president wouldn't have to contend with the distracting sideshow of Congress. And angry progressives may lose their momentary ire, focus on the Republicans they don't like, and get back in the mood to go to the polls.
The hope is that public opinion about health care reform might flip as quickly as it has since the president announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. In the NBC poll, 55 percent say they support increasing the U.S. troop levels, an 8-point jump since October. Obama's approval ratings as commander in chief have gone up (7 points in the ABC poll), his strongest showing in seven categories tested.
There are other alternatives to shrink the enthusiasm gap. The president and Congress could pass other measures that progressives would like, from immigration reform to legislation that makes it easier for unions to organize. It's tough to bank on legislative accomplishment, though.
The alternative, say Democrats involved in races, will be to attack Republicans more directly and thoroughly for their obstructionism. If the enthusiasm gap remains big, then the president may have to engage in that fight directly. That will carry risks since voters like to see the president in the bipartisan spirit he campaigned on (even if that spirit is unrequited). It will be hard to both attack and extol the opposition—almost as hard as pretending you're thrilled to get a gift when you're really not.