Analysis: With sagging approval ratings what will passage of health care bill mean for Obama? 

So long as the topic of health care continues to dominate the headlines President Obama will likely find his job approval rating in intensive care.

Sunday’s crucial House vote on the current sweeping legislation will come at a time when the President’s popularity is at a new low according to certain polls. After hovering around the 50% plateau for several months Obama has suddenly fallen below the threshold. Real Clear Politics which combines the averages of several recent surveys shows the President’s approval, for the first time, dropping in the negatives.

Rasmussen Reports which has provided the White House with particularly bearish ratings for many months now currently pegs Obama’s popularity at just 45% with 55% disapproving of his performance. Fox News also has the President in the negatives to the tune of a 46-48% margin. While he is still on the plus side in polls from Pew Research and NBC News/Wall Street Journal, both publications show his job approval at under 50%. Only an Associated Press survey conducted earlier this month provides the President with some measure of good news positing him with a 53-46% approval to disapproval rating.

Perhaps the most notable new release comes from Gallup. As of yesterday the highly regarded organization places Obama’s numbers in the negatives for the first time. 46% of American adults now approve of the President’s job performance against 48% who disapprove. Factoring in these results with the other aforementioned polls, a combination of adults, registered voters and likely voter samples, the average for Obama is a meager 47.3% approval rating against 47.8% who disapprove.

It seems clear that the health care issue is the main culprit in President Obama’s sagging popularity. The latest Rasmussen polling indicates a sizeable majority of American voters lining up against the Democratic reform measures. 53% are opposed to the new legislation with 43% in favor of its passage. Fox News echoes those findings but measures even stronger cries of opposition coming from the public. According to their most recent findings just 35% favor the current legislation against 55% who are opposed. While a marginal improvement from January President Obama’s handling of the health care issue receives largely negative marks adults surveyed by NBC News. 41% approve of his handling of the issue and 57% disapprove. Ditto those findings from the most recent Pew poll that show the President at a 39-52% approval to disapproval margin on the subject.

Gallup chose to breakdown the opinions of Americans based on separate categories. The most positive area for Obama comes with the 59-22% margin of the public who feel that those currently without health insurance coverage will be better served under the new bill against those who believe they will be worse off. Lower income families in general are also perceived to be in better shape as a result of health care reform by a margin of 56-29%. Beyond that all other categories get a decidedly negative response from the American public. This includes the country as a whole that will be worse off in the opinion of 44% and better off by just 39% of responders. Pharmaceutical companies (41-34%), middle-income families (44-34%), hospitals (42-33%), doctors (45-29%), you and your family (37-28%), health insurances companies (51-26%), and upper-income families (33-22%) follow suit.

President Obama has been quoted as suggesting the life of his Presidency hinges on the success or failure of the health care reform bill. In spite of a recent injection of adrenaline from a couple of high ranking Democratic congressman and the blessing of a group of catholic nuns, it seems most Americans have both made up their mind on health care and will continue to give Obama low marks as long as it remains the top issue he focuses on. The President probably faces one of three scenarios in the event he receives a legislative victory for passage of the bill through Congress;


1)       Despite the unpopularity of the bill and Obama’s sagging approval with the American public passage will finally get the topic off the table, at least temporarily. The President will then be able to focus on other priorities and perhaps craft a more populist message on issues that will help him rebound in the polls as we draw ever close to the midterm elections. With the notoriously short attention span of the American public simply switching gears is often a perfect remedy for an ailing Presidency.


2)      Yes a majority of Americans disagree with the President sweeping health care legislation but there are potential gains to be made if the bill is passed on two fronts. First it will energize Democrats, most of whom are already strongly supportive of reform. Secondly, for the millions of wavering moderates and independents passage will at least show some measure of strong leadership on the part of the President. While many will continue to disagree with Obama on the issue itself, a Commander in Chief who is viewed as strong and decisive even in the face of scrutiny is someone who generally gains grudging respect from an American public always supportive of strong leadership.


3)       Passage will be the final nail in the coffin for Obama and Democrats, at least for the rest of 2010 and perhaps up through 2012 as well. Without the passage of health care reform Obama still has something of a “get out of jail free” card to play. Ramming through the current legislation however will convince conservatives that the President’s character and liberal agenda must be attacked mercilessly. The formation of an even stronger movement than that of the “Tea Party” will come about rallying around smaller government issues and fiscal responsibility. Republicans in Congress meanwhile, with the prospects of already larger numbers come 2011, will unify against Obama and the Democrats derailing most of the President’s legislation from now until the end of his first-term.


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Michael Daboll

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