How Obama plans to get the Democrats excited about health care and 2010.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 16 2009 7:26 PM

The Enthusiasm Gap

How Obama plans to get the Democrats excited about health care and 2010.

President Obama recently told Oprah Winfrey that he doesn't get very good Christmas presents. This is great training for a budding politician, because faking enthusiasm for a bad gift is one of the few times you can practice insincerity. Oh, tube socks! I really needed tube socks! This could be another bummer year for the president. He's going to get a present—health care reform will pass the Senate—but it's not likely to be exactly the kind he wanted.

In one sense, health care reform, like any gift, is welcome. And it's certainly better than the alternative. "If it doesn't pass, it will look like Democrats can't get anything done," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says. A strategist working for Democrats on several 2010 campaigns says it would be "a political catastrophe if nothing passes." The president would look weak, which would depress Democratic voters and keep them from going to the polls in 2010. House members, who have already had to vote on health care reform, would be doubly unlucky: They would be vulnerable to being painted as profligate spenders who wanted to put government in charge of health care, yet they would be unable to brag that at least they helped insure 30 million people.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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Perhaps this is why the White House spokesman today suggested that former Gov. Howard Dean was daffy. Dean has suggested killing the Senate bill. Spokesman Robert Gibbs responded, "I don't think any rational person would say killing a bill makes any sense at this point." (Gibbs has a point. Starting over isn't going to rearrange the makeup of the Senate, which is driving the compromises that Dean doesn't like. There's also no evidence that forcing people to watch legislators truss the haggis one more time will improve their view of health care reform.)

The political question then becomes: If we accept that passage is better than failure, how much better is it? If voters are thrilled when health care reform passes, it will of course help the president: He will be in a better position to push through his agenda next year, and to help Democrats keep their sizeable majorities in Congress.

Right now, however, the picture looks grim. First, the president's opponents are much more energized than his supporters. According to the just-released Battleground poll, more than three-quarters of Republicans and independents say they are extremely likely to vote, with fewer than two-thirds of Democrats extremely likely to vote, including 58 percent of African-American voters. "Looking at the enthusiasm numbers makes your blood run cold," said the Democratic strategist.

Enthusiasm for health care reform specifically, and among Democrats in general, is low. Day by day, public opinion about health care reform seems to get worse. In a recent NBC poll, just 32 percent of respondents said they believe the president's health care plan is a "good idea"; 47 percent said it's a "bad idea," the highest that number has been. According to a recent ABC News poll, majorities now for the first time disapprove of Obama's work on health care (53 percent) and oppose the health care reform package making its way through Congress (51 percent).

Those numbers suggest that people won't be greeting the Senate bill like a free Wii. "The problem with health care reform is that whatever passes will be met with mixed results," says Lake. Part of this results from the fact that people don't think there's anything in the bill for them. In the Battleground poll conducted by Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas, when people were asked their priorities for health care reform and the president's priorities, the two were wildly divergent: 28 percent said their priorities matched the president's, while 64 percent said they did not. In the ABC/Washington Post poll, more than half of those polled, 53 percent, see higher costs for themselves if the proposed changes go into effect than if the current system remains intact.