09/23/2010 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Retreat on Health Care

It's only taken six months for President Obama's landmark health reform bill to go from stupendous historic achievement to political blunder. That, anyway, is the fast-congealing consensus among pundits who follow the polls.

Count me as skeptical. Even if health care doesn't poll well now, that doesn't mean Obama was wrong to make it a top priority. But, in an atmosphere colored by public anger over bailouts and a sluggish economic recovery, there's no doubt that the bill, for now at least, is more of an albatross for the president than an asset.

According to pollster Douglas Schoen, 81 percent of independents express concern about a federal takeover of health care, and nearly three-quarters say it's important that candidates back a repeal of the law. He calls health care an "unambiguous disaster" for Obama.

And Bill Galston reports on a new Gallup survey that finds voters by 56-43 disapprove of the health bill.

An AP poll reveals much confusion about health reform. More than half the public wrongly believes the bill will raise taxes this year, and a quarter think it sets up bureaucratic "death panels" to decide who gets or doesn't get care.

No wonder Obama hit the hustings yesterday to clear the record and remind people of why they wanted health care reform in the first place.

But it's clear, right, that Obama made a mistake in pushing so hard for health care reform and it distracted him from what most Americans care about, namely, fixing the economy? Actually, I don't think it's clear at all.

First, Obama pulled out all the stops to keep the economy from sliding into the abyss, but gets very little credit for it. On the contrary, his steps to rescue financial institutions are even less popular than health care, and his stimulus package doesn't fare much better.

More fundamentally, presidents have very limited tools for reversing economic downturns. It's not clear what more Obama could have done -- or gotten a deeply polarized Congress to agree to do -- even if he spent every waking hour thinking about the economy.

And let's suppose Obama had followed the pundit's advice, and put off health care until the economy recovered. Well, that would mean taking up health care in 2011 at the earliest. But how likely is it that the president could pass an historic health care reform after the midterm election, when his party is expected to suffer big losses and maybe even lose control of the House of Representatives?

Maybe the midterm will produce a new crop of GOP moderates, eager to pass universal health care in defiance of the party's leadership, not to mention the Tea Party's feral legions, but I doubt it.

The historical record is very clear on one point: the time for presidents to wrack up big legislative accomplishments comes early in their term, when their political and public support is at highest ebb. If Obama had instead waited and tried to husband his political capital for a later push, he would have had a lot less to spend.

Besides, the bad economy overshadows everything else. If we had six percent unemployment, people might feel better about health reform too. And there's a good chance that once its provisions actually kick in, reform will grow in popularity.

But even if it doesn't, Obama still did the right thing. America today doesn't need artful dodgers in the White House; we need leaders willing to take on the hard cases. That inevitably offends powerful interests and voting groups. In fact, presidents who leave office about as popular as when they come in probably haven't done very much.

So progressives should take heart, and not try to back away from health care reform. It was difficult, it was imperfect, but it was a moral and economic necessity to cover the uninsured and start getting runaway medical costs under control. It was the very rarest thing in contemporary U.S. politics -- an authentic act of political leadership -- and no amount of second-guessing and poll-driven punditry can change that.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.