Business Times - 29 Dec 2009
Fall-out of Obama health-care reforms
Despite passage of Bill, intense political fight over issue has weakened public support for US president
By LEON HADAR
AFTER several months of nasty public debate and heated Congressional deliberations - marked by the political rise of Tea-Party crowd and the notorious 'birthers' and 'deathers' - the US Senate passed a modest but solid healthcare reform bill that could extend coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans.
The final passage of the bill, on a 60-39 vote along party lines with no Republican support, is seen as a huge political victory and a historic achievement for US President Barack Obama.
Most observers expect the Senate and the House of Representatives to fuse their respective versions of the health-care bill when lawmakers return to Washington early next year, and a final draft of the legislation will be signed by Mr Obama probably before he delivers his State of the Union Address to Congress in February.
Several occupants of the White House, starting with President Theodore Roosevelt at the start of the 20th Century had pressed Congress to pass health-care reform legislations - and failed. So it was not surprising that President Obama sounded like a proud man last week. 'As I've said before, these are not small reforms; these are big reforms,' Mr Obama said after the Senate bill was approved last week.
'If passed, this will be the most important piece of social policy since the Social Security Act in the 1930s, and the most important reform of our health-care system since Medicare passed in the 1960s,' he stressed.
But most opinion polls indicate that the proposed plan that seeks to raise US$544 billion over 10 years by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans and imposing a surtax of 5.4 per cent on couples with income in excess of US$1 million, is not very popular among the majority of Americans who are worried about its expected heavy costs as well as about the potential for government intrusion into their private health-care insurance programmes.
White House aides and Democratic strategists suggest that the American public which has been bombarded for several months by an effective campaign against the legislation organised by the private insurance companies and their Republican allies on Capitol Hill will eventually come to appreciate the significance of the Obama Administration's effort to reform a costly and ailing health-care system.
Republicans who are getting ready for the midterm Congressional election in November are confident that voters are going to punish the Democrats, and by extension, the White House for the passage of the unpopular bill that involved various political and financial payoffs to wavering Democratic Senators in exchange for their support for the bill.
The Republican spin blames President Obama and the Democrats for wasting precious government resources on an expensive and unnecessary public programme instead of investing more efforts in dealing with the issue that seems to preoccupy the majority of Americans - the high rate of unemployment that remains at around 10 per cent; and it is actually higher if the rate of underemployment is also taken into account.
Moreover, the unemployment figures are much higher than the national rate in several states and many Congressional districts. And the consensus among the political professionals in Washington is that the issue is going to determine the outcome of the Congressional races in 2010, and that unless unemployment falls to about 7 per cent by November, the Democrats could lose their current majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
There is no question that Mr Obama had hoped to win passage of health-care reform four months ago and that the intense political fight over the issue has weakened public support for the President. But while Mr Obama has failed to achieve his earlier goal of winning bi-partisan support for a health-care reform bill, the political bottom-line is that the Republicans were unable to turn health-care into Mr Obama's 'Waterloo,' an historical analogy that had been raised by a Republican Senator.
As they say in Washington, a win is a win is a win.
And the White House and the Democrats are hoping to convince the American public that the health-care bill will eventually reduce government costs and lower the deficit and that it will provide assistance to many unemployed Americans who cannot afford to pay for their rising costs of their health-care now; in fact, many of the unemployed are denied access to health-care by the private insurance companies.
Moreover, with the health-care expected to be behind him in a few weeks, President Obama is going to spend the start of the new year with a second big legislative package - an ambitious 'jobs bill' - that will attempt to respond to public worried over unemployment.
The Republicans, however, are going to depict any administration plan to use government resources to create new jobs as another wasteful economic stimulus package and that the most effective way to create new jobs will be by providing new tax cuts to private businesses.
Unfortunately for Mr Obama, there are also many centrist and conservative Democratic lawmakers, especially those representing districts in the South who are expressing strong opposition to new government spending and have been critical of what they considered to be a tilt towards the political left by the White House and the Democrats.
Indeed, one such conservative Democrat, Representative Parker Griffith of Alabama has already announced that he was switching to the Republican party, and there are rumours in Washington that a few other Democrats from the South are planning to follow his example.
At the same time, many liberal and progressive Democrats have been critical of President Obama for tilting too much towards the political centre and right.
They point to the decision by the White House to drop the idea of creating a public health-care insurance programme to compete with the private companies and to deploy more American troops to Afghanistan as examples of the unwillingness by the president to resist the pressure from Big Business and the Pentagon.
President Obama and his aides continue to insist that he is pursuing a pragmatic and progressive policy agenda but admit that the political pressure on Mr Obama from the Republicans as well as from the warring political wings in his own party are going to make it difficult, if not impossible, to get his plans to reform financial regulations and to enact an energy bill before the end of 2010.
The coming year may prove to be even more partisan than 2009.
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