How Americans feel about health care reform

An anti-Obama health care glove is worn in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, on March 27, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Hobson: The Supreme Court has heard the arguments for and against President Obama's healthcare reform law, and must now decide if that law is constitutional. Yesterday, the question was whether most of the law could stand if the part of it that requires Americans to purchase health insurance were to be struck down.

Here's one of the more liberal justices, Elena Kagan:

Elena Kagan: The question is always, does Congress want half a loaf -- is half a loaf better than no loaf? And on something like the exchanges, it seems to me a perfect example where half a loaf is better than no loaf.

And here is one of the court's more conservative justices, Antonin Scalia:

Antonin Scalia: You know, sometimes Congress says all the provisions of this act will be severable. And we ignore that when the act really won't work.

Now we could spend all day trying to figure out what these justices are going to decide. But why bother, when we already know what the American people think? According to Gallup, more than 7 in 10 Americans think the individual mandate is unconstitutional -- which brings us to a segment we call Attitude Check.

Frank Newport is editor-in-chief at the polling firm Gallup and he joins us now. Good morning, Frank.

Frank Newport: Hi, good morning.

Hobson: Well, is it just the individual mandate part of the law that Americans don't seem to like, or is it something more fundamental?

Newport: You know, looking over the research, in terms of the specifics of the law, it is the individual mandate which is the most negative of anything that gets tested. In fact, some of the other aspects of the law individually -- like allowing 18-25 year olds to ride on their parents policies and to make sure that you're not denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions -- those are fairly wildly popular in a lot of polling.

But most polling shows that in addition to saying it's unconstitutional, Americans just don't like the idea of the individual mandate. So when you look at it specifically, that is the Big Kahuna; that's the thing that Americans really are most negative about. And I think that's in part because that represents bigness -- big government requiring everybody to have insurance -- and that's in the bigger sense what Americans are really sensitive to.

Hobson: So they don't like "bigness," but do you get a sense in your polling of what they do want in health care?

Newport: Well, they do want a lot of specifics. You know, if you say: Should the government -- just very narrowly -- say that you cannot be denied health care coverage because of pre-existing conditions, Americans say, "Sure, that's something the government should do."

The problem is bundling; that's how I look at it, having reviewed a lot of the data. When you bundle this all together, then Americans say, "Wait a minute, when you start doing all these things with the bill, then all of a sudden you've got government doing a lot." And Americans are very negative on a number of aspects of the federal government at this point. They think it's inefficient; they think it's already too big; there are too many regulations; and so on and so forth.

Hobson: Well, do Americans see the health care issue as a big problem?

Newport: You know, it's latent vs. manifest -- how's that for an answer? It is a latent concern. If you simply ask Americans: Overall, what's the most important problem facing the country? -- which we just did in March. Five percent mention health care, a very small number. It's swamped by mentions of the economy; even dissatisfaction with the government is higher than health care. So it's not top of mind, and partially that's because most Americans actually have health care coverage which they're fairly positive about.

But latent concern is what I come back to, because if you read a list to Americans, say: All right, how much do you worry about each of these problems, or how concern are you as a policy issue about blah blah blah? Health care will in fact percolate right up there fairly close to the top. So it's not top of mind -- Americans aren't vexed by it like they are the job situation. But underneath it all, Americans do think it is a significant problem.

Hobson: Frank Newport is editor-in-chief at Gallup. Thanks so much.

Newport: Great to be with you.


About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.
Log in to post5 Comments

Grace sort of nails it.
Without the context of the actual questions, the Gallup and Pew reports are meaningless.
I understand that the actual questions are part of the proprietary methods that pollsters keep secret from each other, but ginning down the results of multi-question phone interviews lasting up to 20 minutes into a 30-second news segment is not the way to report on polls.

I agree with GraceG. There is an intellectual divide in this country that forces empathetic people with common sense to be minorities and the rest to bicker about small inequities without considering the larger picture including alternatives. There needs to be a clear explanation of the benefits of an individual mandate, such as the severance of the tie between employment and health insurance - for knowledge workers and for the economy in general, this presents a wealth of opportunities such as the ability to work independently and challenge the 'loyalty to company' ethic which is no longer working.

Obamer really messed up. Spent the first nine months on something that was unconstitutional. Got him a Nobel Peace prize while ramping up the Irag war by 30,000 troops. Now that's leadership.

Obamer really messed up. Spent the first nine months on something that was unconstitutional. Got him a Nobel Peace prize while ramping up the Irag war by 30,000 troops. Now that's leadership.

This is kind of like waiting for the first baby in the family to talk. Wow, babies must have such awesome ideas! Then they start talking and they say, "I'm hungry, pick me up, put me down, I feel all wet". At first I thought the Pew reports would be interesting. Now I see that the American public, at least the people Pew can get a hold of, base their opinions on a lack of understanding of what providing what they want would necessarily entail (i.e. a universal mandate to buy health insurance.) Or, maybe it's the way the questions are framed and the intent of the polling. Are naive opinions like this useful to anyone? Are they perhaps actually harmful?

With Generous Support From...