In September 1993, after President Clinton spoke to the nation about his plans to reform its health care system, 59% of those surveyed by Gallup said they favored his plan. Over time, opinion moved sharply against it. By March 1994, more people opposed than supported it. The last time Gallup asked about the bill before it was officially declared dead in September 1994, 55% opposed it. Other polls from the time also showed opposition rising over the course of the debate.
This year, different polls have presented different pictures of the overall level of support for the current health care reform efforts in Congress. In recent months, for example, people have been evenly divided in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, but in the Pew Research Center's polls, opposition to the effort has outweighed support.
Internally, however, each polling organization's results have been fairly stable. In Quinnipiac's poll, 40% approved of the proposed changes in the health care system in October; 38% do so today. In Pew's September question, 42% favored health care plans being discussed in Congress; in November, 38% did. In the GfKRoper/AP poll, 34% supported reform in September; 39% did so in November. In the ABC/Post poll, 46% supported it in September, 48% in November. In Gallup's polling, 38% said they wanted their member to vote for it in September, 35% said that in late November.
Against this stability, we have seen some significant changes in responses to questions about the role of government in the provision of health care. In three recent polls, skepticism has grown.
In a CBS News/New York Times question from March about whether the federal government should "guarantee health insurance for all Americans," 62% said it should. In September, 51% did. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics found that 66% in February said that the federal government should make sure all Americans have health care, while only 51% said so in July. And, finally, in a Gallup question from a year ago, 54% said it's the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all American have health care coverage. That's 47% now.
Why is opinion stable on reform plans, but dropping sharply on questions about government's role? The political atmosphere is more polarized now, and the stability of the responses on questions about reform may indicate that people made up their minds early based on party affiliation and haven't changed them. But other factors shape views about the government's role. For instance, the federal government is much more involved in the economy now than it was a year ago, and people may just more nervous about it. People tend to be more magnanimous about what they want government to do when they are feeling good about their own economic circumstances, and there is considerable economic pain right now. Another possible explanation is that people are tuning in more to the recent debate, and the more they hear about what government's role will be, the more reservations they have.
Finally, this shift in public opinion may reflect a larger ambivalence about government. We are pulled back and forth in our views about government depending on circumstances. We are a rich and powerful country and we want government to do a lot. We don't want to see our fellow citizens suffer because they don't have or can't get health care. But at the same time, we see government as wasteful, inefficient and too darn expensive. The weight of opinion today is on government as a problem causer, not solver. Our personal experiences in the past year as well as the government's expanded role have pulled us in a much more skeptical direction about Washington.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.