President Obama has spent a lot of time lately speaking on behalf of imperiled or embattled enterprises, such as Wall Street, General Motors, and his own health care plan. Another beleaguered institution could use his help: the United States Congress. It's a very unpopular bunch—and its bad reputation is hurting the president's plans for health care reform.
After the August recess, a senior Democratic congressional aide explained one of the lessons Democrats had learned during the summer. They left Washington armed with a list of goodies health reform would deliver to regular people: protection from insurance companies that would deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, protection from insurers who would drop coverage on a whim, and the security that comes from knowing some form of health insurance would always be available. Their constituents were highly skeptical. It wasn't because people didn't want those things—they desperately do. Poll after poll shows it. They just didn't trust Congress to deliver them.
In fact, if you believe the polls, most people don't trust Congress to deliver a sandwich. A recent Pew Research Center study found 37 percent with a favorable opinion of Congress, while 52 percent hold an unfavorable view. Positive opinions of Congress have declined by 13 points since April and are now at one of the lowest points in more than two decades of Pew Research Center surveys. It's not that people worry Congress can't pass legislation. It's that the legislation unleashes a host of unintended consequences that water down promises or create other problems. Or that legislation today is undone by legislation tomorrow when the political situation changes.
On the health care issue, Congress is back in control. Obama's speech last week to the joint congressional session was designed, in part, to make the issue his own. And for good reason: According to the Pew poll, 56 percent of Americans have at least a fair amount of confidence in his handling of the issue. Only 45 percent have the same view of Democratic congressional leaders, and only 39 percent say that about Republican leaders.
Despite the president's efforts, however, the health care debate is basically back where it was before the August recess. The story is about what provisions are going to make it into what bills. The president talks about "his plan," but such a thing doesn't exist in Congress, where the business of making health care legislation is taking place. So the White House is once again reacting to what's happening on the Hill.
White House aide David Axelrod was back on the Hill on Tuesday meeting with Democrats, as he did just days before they left for the August recess. In the House, liberal Democrats are demanding that the president insist a public option be included in legislation. In the Senate, the topic didn't even come up, according to Sen. Ben Nelson. Said a senior leadership aide: "That's because everyone knows the public option is dead on arrival up here."
The daily news narrative is now going to be about the skirmishes and developments in Congress. Two of the key players were beset by swarms of reporters Tuesday after Senate Democrats met with Axelrod. One, Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the finance committee, said the bill he will release tomorrow "is essentially what the president outlined." At the center of the other scrum was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a champion of the public option who sits on the finance committee. He has said he cannot vote for the Baucus bill.
Republicans are happy to play on Congress' low reputation and the confusion that inevitably surrounds these massive acts of legislation. "The era of the 1,000-page bill is over," said Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "We've proven we don't do comprehensive legislation well in these 1,000-page bills that nobody reads."
In the end, there's not much that the president really can do to improve Congress' standing. And, given some of the early polls relating to Obama's salesmanship of health care reform, members of the House and Senate might not want the help. In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, 54 percent said the more people heard about the president's health care plan, the less they liked it. (Forty-one percent held the opposite view.) That may be a temporary condition for reform, but given the public mood about Congress, a slip would give its members the same standing as an even more distrusted institution: the media.