Remember "angry white men," the hot constituency in 1994? They drove a huge backlash against the new Democratic president and threw the Democrats out of power in Congress. What made them so upset? The threat of "Big Government" -- taxes, gun control, and health care reform. Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh helped engineer the 1994 Republican victory.
Is history about to repeat itself?
President Obama's job-approval rating fell from 63 percent in late April, at the end of his first 100 days, to 56 percent early this month, after 200 days, according to a CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research. That's a 7-point decline. Among white men, Obama's ratings have fallen twice as far -- down 14 points, from 56 percent to 42 percent. Obama's most outspoken critic? Limbaugh.
But there are important differences this time. In August 1993, at the end of his first 200 days, President Clinton's job-approval rating stood at 44 percent, 12 points lower than Obama's is now. In 1994, white men comprised 43 percent of the electorate. In 2008, their share fell to 36 percent.
Right now, Americans are divided over revamping the nation's health care system. In the CNN poll, 50 percent said they favor "Barack Obama's plan to reform health care,'' while 45 percent said they oppose it. But politicians pay attention to intensity, not just numbers. They want to know, not just how many people are for and against a given policy, but how many votes on each side will be driven by the issue.
Opponents of overhauling health care feel more strongly about it than do supporters: 33 percent of Americans say they strongly oppose health care reform while 23 percent say they strongly support it. Here's a slightly different measure: 65 percent of Republicans strongly oppose health care reform. How many Democrats strongly favor it? 42 percent. Opponents also say they're more likely to attend a public forum on the issue (48 percent, compared with 37 percent of supporters).
Supporters are not as intensely motivated in part because there is no single "Obama plan to reform health care" for them to rally around. Moreover, Americans overwhelmingly say they're satisfied with their health care (83 percent) and their health insurance (74 percent). A whopping 71 percent are satisfied with both.
Obama addressed that satisfied majority at his July 22 news conference: "A lot of Americans may be wondering, what's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?" The president's answer was, "The reform we're proposing will provide you with more security and more stability."
Is the satisfied majority ready to block reform? No, they are divided, 44 percent in favor, 50 percent opposed. Although they are inclined to oppose reform, they may be persuadable. Here's why: Only 30 percent of Americans think Obama's health care reforms would help them and their family. But 44 percent think the reforms would help others. Only 20 percent say the reforms would not help anyone. Many satisfied Americans want to help others, as long as it doesn't cost them too much.
Critics warn that overhauling health care would mean too much government control. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., put it, "The Democrats believe that you've got to change the entire health care system in America, including the so-called government option, which we believe would lead to a government takeover of the health care system." Actually, about three-quarters of Americans say they think that it is "necessary to make major structural changes in the nation's health care system" to make sure that all Americans have health insurance (77 percent) and to reduce health care costs (74 percent).
Supporters of revamping the system warn that the status quo means too much control by insurance companies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged that "Congress and the president will remove the insurance industry from coming between the patient and his or her doctor."
Would Americans rather have difficult health care decisions made by people who work for the government or by people who work for insurance companies? They're evenly split: 40 percent say government; 40 percent say insurance companies. A lot of people hear that question and wonder, "Yikes! Those are the only choices?"