When Bill Clinton addressed a crowd of mildly despondent progressives at the Netroots Nation conference this past August, he made a prediction. If health care reform were to pass, the former president said, it would result in a massive uptick in Obama's popularity.
"Within a year, when all those bad things they say will happen don't happen, and all the good things happen, approval will explode," Clinton declared.
A polling bump has served as an alluring carrot to win over Democrats skeptical of health care reform. But not everyone is convinced that the sheer fact that legislation passed will do wonders for Democrats in the world of public opinion.
"Bill Clinton has always been a better strategist than I have been," Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic pollster, told the Huffington Post. "But, you know, I would not be surprised if we don't see that... I wouldn't be surprised if [Obama's] ratings stay fairly close to where they are. And for two reasons: first of all, the real weight that is holding down the president's approval rating is the economy. There is just no question about that is the real impediment to his approval ratings improving. To pass health care reform on Christmas Eve is not going to improve the economy the day after Christmas. Secondly, at this point this is still a pretty controversial bill. When people know the content they are for it, and when they don't know the content they are pretty divided. So I'm not sure there are going to be a lot of people jumping for joy [when it passes]."
"I think [Obama] is going to get some credit for being effective here and I think that would help him," Mellman added. "But I would be surprised if we saw a big jump in approval ratings. We may see them for a day or two, but I don't think it is going to last very long."
Public opinion prognostication is inherently chancy. But if any pollster has a good grasp of the health care debate, it is Mellman. A highly respected Democratic adviser, he has been consulting Senate Democrats about how to properly sell the reform package they are poised to pass. His advice to those who have spent months engaged in the process is a bit dour: The debate's not over. As Mellman sees it, public opinion on the legislation should remain malleable months, if not years, after passage. Placed in a news vacuum -- as it was during the August recess -- the bill can be painted in the most nefarious of lights. And so, even though Democrats may gain momentary relief by getting the legislation done, they shouldn't rest on their laurels.
"There is going to be a prolonged process here, even after the bill passes, of selling the bill," Mellman said. "The naturally tendency of the legislative process is to move on. You pass legislation, breathe a sigh of relief, and move on to another bill and stop talking about that which is already done. That can't happen here."
Mellman noted that some of the legislative perks from health care reform won't kick in for years down the road; the bill's supporters will be championing abstract achievements. Nevertheless, he said there are immediate benefits to which Democrats should and can point -- namely the prohibition on abusive insurance industry practices.
As for internal party divisions, Mellman said he expects progressive critics of the bill to eventually come back into the fold.
"There is no question that there are a meaningful chunk of voters out there who think this bill did not go far enough in reforming health care," he said. "I think at the end of the day, the people who think this bill didn't go far enough will come to recognize the political realities: which is there aren't the votes to go further. And the only way to get something more than this is to add even more progressive Democrats in the Senate. So their electoral enthusiasm should be increased, not decreased."
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