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Public Opinion and Health Care Reform

- June 22, 2009

In his “NY Times column”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/opinion/22krugman.html?ref=opinion today, Paul Krugman writes:

bq. America’s political scene has changed immensely since the last time a Democratic president tried to reform health care. So has the health care picture: with costs soaring and insurance dwindling, nobody can now say with a straight face that the U.S. health care system is O.K. And if surveys like the New York Times/CBS News poll released last weekend are any indication, voters are ready for major change.

The poll to which he refers reports that, among other statistics, “72 percent of Americans”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/health/policy/21poll.html would support a publicly run health plan that would compete with private insurers, as opposed to only 20 percent who would oppose such a plan.

Nolan McCarty has a very “thought provoking response”:http://blogs.princeton.edu/mccarty/2009/06/is-the-public-now-ready-for-health-care-reform.html on his blog, which I encourage people to read in its entirety. The gist of his argument, however, is that as eye-catching as these numbers might be, they really aren’t any different than they were in 1994, the last time health care reform was proposed. His bottom line:

bq. There are many reasons why health care reform may be more successful now that it was sixteen years ago. But it does not appear that a sea change in public opinion is one of them.

I think Nolan’s final point is well stated, but I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of Obama having a reservoir of public support behind him. As Krugman points out, the number of Senators that Obama is going to have to sway to bring about health care reform that includes a public option is probably not that large, and ultimately the bully pulpit is going to be a large part of his arsenal for doing so. As veterans of attempts to reform Social Security under the last administration would probably report, attempting to get law makers to change their minds on reform of this magnitude without a strong groundswell of public support is probably a much, much more difficult task.