In Kaiser Family Foundation polling over the past two years, it hasn't been unusual for the share of people who say the country, as a whole, would be better off under the health care reform law President Obama signed to roughly equal those who say it will be worse off. In the latest monthly survey, released last week, for instance, 34 percent say the law will benefit the country overall, while 35 percent say it will hurt the country overall. (The rest say it won't have much effect.)
But since late 2010, the share of people who say that their own family will be worse off because of the law has almost always exceeded the percentage that say it will benefit them personally. That skepticism remains the core of the political problem facing Obama as the Supreme Court nears a verdict on the law's cornerstone, the mandate on individuals to purchase insurance. Even at the law's best moments in public opinion, when a plurality might agree it will benefit the country overall, the president has never been able to convince most Americans it will benefit them personally. For many months, it seems he has almost stopped trying.
The problem, as on almost all issues relating to government's role, is centered on whites, particularly those in the working class. According to figures provided by Kaiser, in their latest survey, 35 percent of non-white respondents believe that the law will benefit their family. That compares to just 14 percent who believe they will be worse off (the remaining 39 percent don't think it will make much difference). Whites offer nearly a mirror image: just 18 percent believe the law will leave their family better off, compared to 38 percent who believe they will be worse off as a result.
The skepticism among whites is most concentrated among whites without a college degree. Just one-in-seven of them believe health care reform will personally benefit them or their family. Among college whites about one-in-four expect to personally benefit from the reform.
Gallup Polling in March 2010 found that while few whites expected to personally benefit from the law, a majority of them believed it would benefit low-income families and those without health insurance. That suggested they viewed health care reform primarily as a welfare program that would help the needy but not their own families. Kaiser didn't replicate that question in their latest survey, but it may have detected an echo of that sentiment in the finding that twice as many whites believed the law would benefit children than thought it would help their own family.
These attitudes are laced with two large ironies-and one significant political consequence. One irony is that non-college whites are uninsured at much higher rates than those with degrees; for that reason, the law would personally benefit far more of them than the college-educated whites who are somewhat more open to it. The other irony is that important Democratic strategists have long viewed a program expanding access to health care insurance as a key to combating the widespread sense among whites, particularly those in the working class, that government only takes their money and redistributing it to the poor, without offering any tangible assistance in their own often economically-precarious lives.
Instead, as the latest Kaiser Poll shows, the targets of that effort remain entirely unconvinced that the law will benefit them. Rather than ameliorating their skepticism that government will defend their interests, it appears to have only intensified it. And that in turn has placed another brick on the load Obama is carrying with white working class voters, who appear poised in polls to reject him at levels no Democratic presidential nominee has experienced since 1984.