Can Obama Survive Health Care Shock?

Washington Matters

Can Obama Survive Health Care Shock?

Other presidents have attempted to tackle health care, faced midterm losses, but prevailed.

Forget what you've heard about Social Security being the third rail of American politics, the issue that does in politicians who dare to touch it.

The real killer issue is health care. It has helped doom more political careers than Social Security ever did -- and not just this year.

Three times since the end of World War II, Democratic presidents in their first term have offered sweeping changes in the health care system. All three times, Republicans followed with huge midterm election gains, taking control of both chambers of Congress twice and winning back the House once -- this year.

First came Harry Truman. Shortly after Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman took over, he proposed universal health care. Then came the 1946 midterm elections, and the GOP picked up 55 House seats and 12 Senate seats to grab majorities in both chambers. To be sure, there were plenty of other reasons that "To err is Truman" became a popular Republican refrain: postwar labor strikes, a debate over whether and when to end price controls, and the fact that he wasn't FDR. But health care was a pivotal piece of the puzzle, as former President Bill Clinton noted decades later.

Sponsored Content

"The effort virtually destroyed Truman's presidency, driving his approval ratings below 30 percent and helping the Republicans gain control of the Congress," Clinton wrote in My Life, his 2004 memoir.


Clinton became something of an expert on the dangers of health care, learning the hard way that a sweeping reform effort carried a huge cost. “I knew the whole enterprise was risky,” Clinton recalled. But he went forward anyway, ahead of the 1994 midterms.


“On November 8, we got the living daylights beat out of us, losing eight Senate seats and fifty-four House seats, the largest defeat for our party since” -- you guessed it -- Harry Truman. Again, a first term Democratic president was left to grapple with Republicans running Congress and the prospect of his own reelection effort running into the ground.

This time, of course, it was Obama who chose to ignore the cautionary tales of health care's dangers. He got further than either Truman or Clinton, actually getting a comprehensive bill through Congress and signing it into law -- at the expense of dozens of Democrats who backed him.


There is one silver lining for Obama, and it’s potentially a big one. Although Republicans took over the House, the fact that Democrats managed to hang on to control of the Senate means Obama won't be faced with outright repeal of what was supposed to be the signature issue of his first term.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans won’t try. In fact, they’d be silly not to try, given exit polls showing about half of voters favoring repeal of all or some of the provisions -- and similar findings in postelection surveys of all adult Americans. Even if Republicans come up short, the attempt will keep the issue alive that much closer to the 2012 elections.

Obama shares more with Truman than just lopsided losses in Congress from touching health care. Both faced members of their own party wanting them to sacrifice their own careers.

In Truman's case, Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright called on him to appoint a Republican as secretary of state, then resign. Under the succession law then in place, that Republican would have become president because the vice presidency was vacant.


In Obama's case, Democratic pollsters Douglas Schoen and Pat Caddell said in a postelection op-ed in The Washington Post that Obama should, for the good of the country, announce he would not seek a second term. Less severe than quitting, no doubt, but still a career killer.

Truman ignored Fulbright's advice and won a full term of his own in 1948. Obama also should ignore Schoen and Caddell. He might not win a second term in 2012, but his numbers aren’t dismal enough to warrant pulling the plug on himself.

Consider this: In a Pew Research Center poll the week before the November elections, 47% of respondents said that Obama should run for a second term. Not a great number, perhaps, but better than the 36% who said at the same point in his term that Ronald Reagan should run again, and a tad more than the 44% who said that about Clinton.

They both cruised to reelection.