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Making the Summit Work

How can we measure whether President Obama’s health care summit on Feb. 25 is a success? Well, the obvious answer is that it will succeed if Congress passes comprehensive health care reform soon afterwards.   But there is an intermediate step that may be necessary. The effect of Obama’s summit has to be to boost the public’s approval of the health care plan that Obama and the Democrats in Congress will be pushing. And it has to show up in opinion polls, because that’s what members of Congress will look at. 

Is that possible? If you look at the approval ratings for health care reform since mid-summer (when they began to decline), you see that there was one time when they significantly went up: right after Obama’s speech to Congress on health care reform on September 9. The Washington Post/ABC News has asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling health care?” On August 13-17, 46 percent approved and 50 percent disapproved, but on September 10-15, and on October 15-18, 48 percent approved and 48 percent disapproved. After that, approval of the health plan began to plummet and is now at 43 to 53 percent. 

Similarly, the Pew poll asked, "As of right now, do you generally favor or generally oppose the health care bills being discussed in Congress?" The August 20-27 poll showed 39 to 46 percent disapproval; September 10-15 showed 42 to 44 percent; and it is now 38 to 50 percent for disapproval.  

So by giving the speech, and making the public aware of the what the legislation said and would do, the president boosted its popularity. And it was in the six weeks after the speech that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to secure a majority for a bill.  What Obama has to accomplish in the summit is very similar: he has to reverse the decline in approval for health care reform, and get the numbers back to where members of Congress can imagine that by voting for the final bill, they are not risking political life and limb. And if the September 9 speech is any guide, he can do that best by getting the public to understand that the bill in Congress is better than the status quo and better than anything the Republican leadership has to offer.

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