What Will Happen to the Obama Presidency if Health Care Doesn’t Pass?

I’m working on a longer post on the latest developments in health care, but I wanted to post a brief comment addressing what I believe to be a fundamental misconception about the likely impact should health care legislation fail to pass. Peter Baker, in this article in the New York Times, suggests that the failure to pass health care would severely damage the Obama presidency.  In his words, “Washington is already debating how pivotal the vote will be to his presidency. Mr. Obama has devoted vast energy and political capital over the last 14 months to get to this point, the presidential equivalent of an all-in bet on the poker table. Should he fail to push his plan through a Congress with strong Democratic majorities, it would certainly damage his credibility as a leader for months, and maybe years. Already the fight has scarred Washington, leaving behind a polarized and angry political elite and questions about whether the system is broken.

If Mr. Obama falls short on health care, his hopes of passing other ambitious legislation like an overhaul of immigration and a market-based cap on carbon emissions to curb climate change would seem out of reach, at least for the rest of this year. Much of Washington would question whether he is weak, some Democratic candidates would run away from him and Mr. Obama would be forced to consider a narrower agenda like that pursued by Bill Clinton after his own health care drive collapsed.”

What’s fascinating about Baker’s assertion – one that has been echoed in several other publications – is that it appears to be based on absolutely no evidence. I know of no research that suggests that the failure to pass health care legislation will weaken the Obama presidency. Obama does not govern in a parliamentary system where the failure to pass legislation can cause a government to “fall” through a no-confidence vote. If health care doesn’t pass, I’m pretty confident that Obama will remain in office through at least January, 2013. Nor can I find any research that suggests it will adversely impact his chances of persuading Congress to pass other legislation dealing with climate change, immigration or any other policy.  I suspect that these other issues will be considered on their own policy and political merits, with the health care outcome largely irrelevant to the calculations made by members of Congress.

Let me be clear here. I don’t doubt that, if health care fails to pass, the news media will claim that the Obama presidency will be damaged, much as Baker asserts.  I just don’t have any reason to believe that these claims are anything more than punditry based on little to no evidence.

But, won’t the failure to pass health care increase the chances that Democrats will lose seats in the 2010 midterm?  Perhaps.  But it is not clear to me that the outcome of the health care vote – by itself – will have much more than a marginal impact on what is already shaping up, largely by virtue of the sluggish economy, as a very bad midterm for Democrats.

Several of you have asked me why Nancy Pelosi (and it is Pelosi and not the Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter that is calling the shots) would risk alienating voters by proposing a rule that would, in effect, allow House Democrats to move forward on a vote on an amended Senate health care bill without first voting on the current Senate bill.  I am working on a longer post on this topic, but the short answer is that she is pursuing this rather unorthodox strategy because she is not confident she has the votes in the House to pass the current Senate health care bill. If you don’t have the votes, the best strategy is not to allow the bill to come to a vote.  Hence the decision to “pretend” the Senate bill has passed, and to move on to consider amendments to that bill.

It just gets more interesting by the day.


  1. Rasmussen poll reported 3/18 suggests pro-health care bill fallout for Democrats. It’s early, of course, but the dissatisfaction trough is growing deeper. Also, Gallup’s 16% favorable (80% unfavorable) rating for Congress likely (indirectly) corroborates.

  2. Mary,

    I should be clear that I expect some negative fallout for Obama and Democrats if health care fails to pass. Most noticeably, they will likely take a hit in the polls, (although as you show the ratings for Congress as a whole can’t drop much more.) And of course he’ll get skewered by pundits. I remain skeptical, however, that this will translate into a significantly weaker presidency as measured by his ability (already weak by virtue of the institution) to get other legislation through Congress. I think there is a tendency to overestimate the linkage between one issue and another; typically each are debated on their own merits, and within their own political context.

    Of greater concern, I would think, is the potential fallout of the failure to pass legislation on the Democrats’ chances in the 2010 midterms – but even here I think the impact is marginal and dwarfed by the problems posed by a sluggish economy.

  3. Hi Professor Dickinson:

    Do you believe that external factors, more than policy debate, play a larger role in the president’s ability to pass legislation? For example, President Bush was able to do more after 9/11, but later on, when Iraq deteriorated, he could not pass immigration or Social Security reform. If this is true, why should voters move on from healthcare failure and place trust in a president that cannot solve the troubles of more than 45 million uninsured Americans?

  4. Thomas – I do indeed believe that external factors play a larger role, which is why one could argue that blaming Obama for the failure to pass health care reform is misleading. If so – if presidents are as weak as I think – the question to ask is whether “trusting” Obama is even the issue. Who would you trust instead?

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