Time is running out for Barack Obama to have healthcare Bill passed

With his all-out push for healthcare reform in peril and time running out to get it through Congress, the young Democratic President delivered an impassioned plea to the US public.

“Don’t let the fearmongers, don’t let the dividers, don’t let the people who disseminate false information frighten the United States Congress into walking away from the opportunity of a lifetime,” he declared.

The words are almost identical to the message that has been preached by President Obama in recent days as his healthcare reform plans become mired in the quicksands of politics. But they were uttered on August 1, 1994, and the man delivering them was Bill Clinton. Within weeks he would see his dreams of reforming the US health system expire as Congress killed off the legislation.

The question facing Mr Obama is whether he is destined to follow in Mr Clinton’s footsteps and see his plan for universal health coverage wither and die on Capitol Hill. Despite Mr Clinton’s defeat on healthcare he was re-elected in 1996. Yet the circumstances now are different. It is only eight months since he was sworn in on a January morning filled with hope and optimism, but the noise and fury surrounding the healthcare debate today are danger signs for Mr Obama’s presidency.

It is remarkable how much political capital Mr Obama has burnt through on healthcare, only to unify the Republicans in opposition and to split his own party. In a change from polls a month ago most Americans now oppose reform. His approval rating has dropped to 50 per cent. Nearly two thirds believe that the $787 billion (£475 billion) economic stimulus package that was passed in February is having no effect or is making the economy worse. His cap-and-trade legislation to curb global warming looks set to die in the Senate.

The polls indicate that he is in danger of losing the electorally vital centre: the elderly, independents and suburban women — critical swing voters — are deserting him.

There are two fundamental reasons for his troubles: the economy — unemployment continues to rise — and signs that Mr Obama might have overinterpreted his mandate.

A Gallup poll released this week showed that conservatives outnumbered liberals in all 50 states and that 40 per cent of voters described themselves as conservative, compared with only 21 per cent who said that they were liberal. The US, in other words, is still ideologically a centre-Right country. A majority in the poll were against the idea of massive government intervention and spending.

When he took office Mr Obama and his aides made myriad comparisons with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Yet in 1932 Roosevelt won 42 of 48 states. Last year Mr Obama won 28 but, believing that the scale of the recession compelled him to act boldly, he announced a domestic agenda of staggering ambition, with healthcare as its cornerstone.

He has been telling the public that he can expand coverage and cut healthcare costs at the same time. The independent Congressional Budget Office has contradicted that assertion and an increasing number of voters are sceptical.

Projections of the federal deficit keep rising and the scale of government debt is a significant concern for voters. Mr Obama has made rough outlines of his plans and left the drafting to Democrats on Capitol Hill as he attempts to learn lessons from Mr Clinton, whose White House-drafted Bill was rejected by Congress.

The result is a swirl of competing ideas as the President tries to sell legislation that does not exist. Voters are confused and he is losing the debate.

Mr Obama may still have some form of watered-down legislation by the end of the year. The White House has signalled that it could be willing to ram something through Congress without Republican support. If he gets a Bill he will sign it to great fanfare, declare victory and his fortunes will improve. If the economy picks up next year and jobs are created, this turbulent period might merely look like a bump in the road.

When Congress reconvenes in September, however, there will be other problems.

Mr Obama will have three months to honour his pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre; the death toll in Afghanistan will probably still be climbing; and he must also decide whether to get tough with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Winning an election is one thing. Governing, as Mr Obama has discovered, is tougher.


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