Picture the scene: a fairly popular President, having amassed a significant amount of political capital, decides its time to cash in and spend some on a tough reform effort for a failing, inadequate system. Many Americans agree that the status quo isn't acceptable long-term but hesitate to sign on to changes that they deem too risky. Members of Congress go out to their districts and are confronted at town hall meetings with frustrated, vocal constituents worried about the risks of the plan. The President's popularity outpaces his policies and in particular, this major reform package. Even with control of both houses of Congress, the package can't survive. The reform fails.
If you feel like you've seen this story before, you're not wrong. The trajectory of the 2009 health care debate seems eerily similar to that of the 2005 battle for Social Security reform. Taking a look at the polling from then and comparing it to the data of today shows the parallels in the situation and shows why the health care debate feels all too familiar.
Similarity #1: Presidential Popularity
First, take a look at a bit of a throwback post from 2006 at MysteryPollster.com where Bush's job approval from January 2005 forward is tracked. Bush began 2005 with job approval over 50% - slightly below where Obama started at the beginning of July (Gallup's 7/05-07/2009 poll had Obama at 56%). The trends are not dissimilar: Charles Franklin's plot of Bush job numbers from January 05 forward shows a similar shrinking of support that looks an awful lot like the Obama job approval chart on the front page. This isn't a particularly surprising finding, but provides context to the other more striking comparisons.
Similarity #2: The Agreement that the Status Quo is Unacceptable
In both the Social Security debate and the health care debate, Americans agree: the system needs major overhaul. While so many other issues fail to get Americans to agree with the crucial "we need to do something" sentiment, both Social Security and health care had that extra boost from a public that agreed: maintaining the current system is not workable long term. In February 2005, Gallup found 73% of Americans said Social Security was "in crisis" or "has major problems". (18% said Social Security was "in crisis").
Compare that to the health care debate of today. Gallup has found that 20% of Americans believe health care is "in crisis" and at least a majority believe it has major problems (unfortunately, Gallup doesn't tell us how large a majority). To flesh that out a bit, Gallup asked the question in November 2008 and found 73% of respondents said that health care was either "in crisis" or had "major problems". Does that number sound familiar?
Similarity #3: Issue Handling
By March 2005, Bush's numbers on issue handling of Social Security were brutal, with an ABC/WaPo poll showing only 35% approving and 56% disapproving. CNN/Gallup had even worse news with only 1 out of 3 approving. Compared to 49% approval shortly after Bush took office, once the issue became a hot topic, Bush's number tanked.
Similarly, Obama's numbers have plummeted on health care since before the debate. In April, during Obama's honeymoon, Pew showed Obama with a 51-26 advantage on health care job approval. By August, he had a 42-43 disadvantage - quite the fall from the earlier numbers. The idea that "the president is more popular than his policies" held true then as it does now. (Just take a look at Mara Liasson's February 2005 NPR story, titled: "Bush More Popular that His Social Security Plan").
In both cases, the President began his administration with the trust and support of the people to fix their given "crisis". In both cases, once the debate flared, their numbers dropped significantly. But it is worthwhile to point out that the comparison is not perfect - the Obama honeymoon numbers were immediately followed by the debate, while Bush had a full four years before tackling Social Security.
At any rate, this is just the basic side-by-side look at the reasons why this health care debate may seem like a bit of a "glitch in the Matrix", giving those who watch politics a sense of deja vu.
Because sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. (This item has been cross posted at Pollster.com)