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Can Republicans Help Obama Sell Health Reform?

The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll on the health care reform law is out and, as usual, it includes some intriguing findings.

Public approval of the law had dipped conspicuously in October, for no apparent reason. But now approval is back to where it has been for most of the last two years, dating back to the law’s enactment in March of 2010. Overall, according to the survey, public opinion on the Affordable Care Act is divided almost evenly: 41 percent of people hold a favorable view of it, while 43 percent hold an unfavorable view.

For the law’s supporters, such as myself, that’s good news but not great news. And it confounds a prediction that many of us made about the law: That, over time, it would become more popular. The lack of enthusiasm is particularly frustrating given that law is finally delivering some clear benefits.

The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that the number of young adults without insurance fell by 2.5 million in the last year. That almost certainly is a result of the law, which requires that insurers allow parents to enroll children under 26 on their policies. Meanwhile, about 2.65 million seniors have saved an average of $500 on their prescription drug costs and 24 million seniors have had free preventative care visits. The reason, again, is the Affordable Care Act.

These gains are small compared to what the law will eventually do: When the Affordable Care Act has taken full effect, 30 million additional people will have health insurance while many more will benefit from the protection of still-to-be-written consumer regulations. But that won’t happen until 2014.

So can anything boost the law’s popularity before then? Perhaps.

Look more deeply into the Kaiser poll and you’ll find another critical, if familiar, finding: Although the public as a whole is ambivalent about reform, it has clearer feelings about whether to ditch the new law altogether. Only 38 percent favor repealing the law, either by replacing it with a Republican alterantive or with nothing at all. Fifty percent want to keep the law as is or expand upon it. (See graph below.)

That’s not a huge margin, but it’s a margin all the same. And, politically speaking, Republicans are on the wrong end of it. The Republican presidential candidates have pledged to make repeal of the law a top priority. But what happens when the nomination battle ends and the general campaign begins – when the eventual Republican nominee must speak to all voters, not just conservatives, and when President Obama is defending the law in clear, unambiguous terms?

My past predictions about the law’s popularity have not panned out, so I'm not going to make another prediction now. But I certainly wouldn't be surprised if the politics of health care reform become more favorable in 2012.

P.S. The Kaiser poll also offers insights into how Democrats might start to change public opinion on the individual mandate, which is highly unpopular. Sarah Kliff has that story at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.