Why Americans oppose the healthcare reform bill

Many say the healthcare reform bill will help only the poor and uninsured. Americans' inability to make sense of it is causing them to respond negatively or to retreat to familiar partisan positions, poll and political analysts say.

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses the healthcare reform bill at her weekly news conference Friday in Washington.

In a sign of President Obama’s failed attempt at convincing Americans his healthcare reform bill will help them, a new Gallup poll shows the majority of the US believes the bill in Congress will benefit just the poor and uninsured.

Almost 60 percent said the healthcare bill would make things better for the uninsured, and 56 percent said it would benefit lower-income families. But 44 percent believe the bill would make things worse for the US as a whole. And less than a third of Americans polled said it would make things better for them and their families.

“The bottom line is that Americans perceive this to be a Medicare-type bill – a welfare bill mainly aimed at helping poor people and those without insurance,” says Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup. “They think everyone else will be a net loser.”

Partisan divide

No surprise, the poll also reflected a deeply partisan divide over the issue.

Only 6 percent of Republicans said the healthcare bill would have a net benefit on the uninsured, compared with 66 percent of Democrats.

And 65 percent of Republicans said the bill would make things worse for the US as a whole.

"The parties are being perceived as returning to their brand," says James Morone, chair of the political science department at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Republicans have succeeded in making the case that Democrats are going the way of welfare. The Democratic brand, whether they like it or not, is 'We like to help people who need help.' "

Confusion breeds negativity

Regardless of partisan politics, says Dr. Morone, Americans are generally uninformed about the healthcare bill, and the results of this latest poll are not about the substance of the bill, but about the conflict surrounding it, he says.

“No one really understands it,” says Morone. "Healthcare is a very high-intensity, low-information issue. People respond to conflict. As conflict escalates, [people] turn against what’s being discussed, they lose confidence in it."

Economic impact

Americans may also be hesitant to support what they see as an expensive program during lean economic times, he adds.

“I think the economy creates a pervasive sense of anxiety that changes our politics,” Morone says. “Republicans have been very successful at saying this is another entitlement program, and that the US is badly overstretched.”

But the economy is not the primary reason Americans oppose the bill, says Gallup's Newport.

Only 5 percent of Americans said they oppose the bill because it would cost government too much and increase the federal deficit.

“The No. 1 reason Americans say they oppose the bill is personal cost,” says Newport.

Of those opposed to the bill, 20 percent say it will raise the cost of insurance, according to an earlier Gallup poll.

Almost as many people, 19 percent, say the bill does not address real problems in healthcare. Eight percent of those polled said they don’t know how the system would work, while another 8 percent said they’re against big government controlling the bill.

Where Obama goes from here

Although American public opinion won’t likely have much impact on how lawmakers vote on the bill this weekend, says Morone, Obama might have used the information to make a better argument for heathcare reform.

“He’s tried to convince people it’s in their interest, but they don’t buy it,” he says. “He’s never tried to rally the public around social justice. I just wonder if Democrats wouldn’t be better off with a social justice argument."

He adds: “This all reflects how enormously complicated healthcare is, how maladroit and fragmented the process has become.”

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