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Erikson: Would the Health Care Bill Become More Popular After Passage? The Lesson from Medicare

Topics: Barack Obama , Health care , Lyndon Johnson , Medicare

Robert S. Erikson is a professor of political science at Columbia University.

If the health care reform bill finally passes Congress and is signed into law, what will be the response of public opinion? Would it turn out that support goes up once the public learns the details of the law, as the Democrats claim? Would Obama's image improve following successful passage? Which party would receive the net benefit?

For clues, we can turn to public opinion polls from the 1960s both before and after passage of Medicare in June 1965. There was a far lesser density of public opinion polling in that era, but the small set of available polls from back then (retrieved via iPOLL) reveal the following.

During the 1965 health care debate, public opinion was ambivalent on how to deliver health care to seniors. Whether a plurality favored President Johnson's public plan or the Republican alternative designed to expand private coverage depended on the exact question wording. But there was considerable popular support for Medicare when presented to the public for an up-or-down vote. In a February 1965 Harris Poll, 62 percent answered affirmatively when asked "Do you favor or oppose President Johnson's program of medical care for the aged under Social Security?"

The lesson for today is that following passage in June 1965, support for Medicare increased further. By December of 1965, the percent who told Harris they "approved" of Medicare rose to a consensus of 82 percent. Ever since, the public's support for Medicare has never been in doubt.

Perhaps even more telling, support for Johnson's handling of health care rose even as his overall popularity began to plunge. In April 1965, when President Johnson was enjoying 67 percent approval in the Gallup Poll, a similar 65 percent told Harris they favored "what [Johnson] has been doing on Medicare under Social Security." After passage, in October 1965, 80 percent of Harris respondents rated Johnson's job as "excellent" or "very good" on "working for Medicare for the aged."

The year 1966 brought a fading of Johnson's political fortune, largely due to declining support for his handling of Vietnam. By August 1966, Johnson's overall approval in the Gallup Poll had sunk to 47 percent. But in the same month, the percent in the Harris Poll who rated Johnson's performance as "excellent" or "very good" on Medicare held firm at 84 percent.

The lesson of 1960s polling can provide some encouragement to today's Democrats. If the analogy holds for today's political scene, a Health Care Reform Law of 2010 will become popular and Obama will be credited with a success in the eyes of public opinion. But like all analogies when applied to today's politics, it must be interpreted with considerable caution. Medicare was considerably more popular at the time of passage than is the current health care bill on the eve of its final vote. And Medicare's opponents at the time of passage were weaker politically than today's Republican leadership, united in opposition.

 

Comments
GARY WAGNER:

There are more differences between Medicare and Obama care than there are similarities.

Voters have 100 times more information available about obamacare as they did about medicare in 1965.

62% of voters approved of Medicare going into the vote. That is the disapproval rate in many polls today.

We weren't in a recession in 1965 and unemployment was only 4.6%.

Over 50% of the republicans in the senate and congress voted for Medicare. Not one will vote for Obamacare.

Voters trusted and respected congress in 1965. 17% curently approve and a majority think that all congressmen are corrupt.

Medicare taxes and fees didn't start 5 years before the benefits.

Medicare did not immediately impact 100% of the population.

1965 was not an election year.

The medicare bill was 265 pages long - not the 2,700 pages of the Senate bill for Obamacare.

Medicare added medical coverage - it didn't change any existing coverage.

Medicare affected less than one tenth of one percent of GDP. Obamacare affects 17% of GDP - 170 times bigger than Medicare.


So I think you are comparing apples to oranges here. Medicare went in with very solid support. Obamacare will go in with very solid opposition. Medicare was very bi-partisan. Obamacare will be completely partisan.

Based on my own admittedly biased opinion and analysis - I think we will see the same approval/disapproval numbers in November as we see today with perhaps as much as a 3 point swing one way or the other. I also think that if this passes, support will continue to creep lower until 2012.

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Wong:

What Wagner chooses to ignore are the 10% of those who oppose the bill do so because they believe the bill does not go far enough. This particular cohort will be on board with in 30 days of passage.

I predict majority support within a month and I believe your analysis is on the money.

Once the bill passes, it will only be a matter of time before the lame, stale, GOP arguments fall to the wayside.

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GARY WAGNER:

Wong, you claimed in a comment last week that 33% oppose this bill because it doesn't go far enough and you never answered a challenge to support that claim with facts. Now you claim 10%.

So you think that all 10% of the people that you claim currently oppose this bill because it isn't bad enough will completely change their minds and support it after it passes? Even with that far-fetched projection that would still leave the majority of americans opposing this bill.

You also choose to ignore that the democrats don't need a single GOP vote to pass this bill. They never did. The only thing bi-partisan about this bill is the opposition.

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