President Obama's health care law is now compounding a political problem it was meant to solve: the generation-long loss of faith in government activism, particularly among the white middle class.
For decades, Democratic strategists have viewed universal health care as their best opportunity to reverse the doubt among many voters, especially whites, that government programs can tangibly benefit their families. Now the catastrophic rollout of the health law threatens instead to reinforce those doubts. That outcome could threaten Democratic priorities for years.
Even before its disastrous launch, the health care law faced anxiety about its goals. On the plan's best days, polls found Americans split almost evenly on whether reform would benefit the country overall. But even then, nothing approaching a majority ever said the law would help their own families; among whites, fewer than one-third said they expected to personally benefit. Far more whites said the law would help the poor or uninsured. That meant, as the law debuted, most whites viewed health care more like food stamps than Social Security.
With its chaotic launch, the administration has now added derision over the law's execution to suspicion about its motivation. In fairness, the health care law, which reported modest but not horrific first-month enrollment numbers, is not the first social program to stumble out of the gate. Social Security initially faced what one historian called "grave administrative difficulties." Although the Children's Health Insurance Program passed under Bill Clinton is now widely praised, enrollment grew slowly, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted this week.