How many times have you heard Barack Obama talk about "the fierce urgency of now"? The president has used the quote, from Martin Luther King Jr., to call for quick action on the war in Iraq, on global warming, on homelessness, on education — you name it.
Now, Obama and his fellow Democrats are trying to convince the nation of the fiercely urgent need to enact national health care reform this very instant.
We have been waiting for health reform since the days of Teddy Roosevelt," Obama told the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in September. "We cannot wait any longer. … There comes a time to remember the fierce urgency of right now."
But the American people simply do not share Obama's sense of urgency about health care reform. In a new poll, the Gallup organization asked the following question: "If Congress is going to reform the health care system, should Congress deal with health care reform on a gradual basis over several years, or should Congress try to pass a comprehensive health care reform plan this year?" Just 38 percent of those surveyed want reform now, versus a clear majority — 58 percent — who want reform on a gradual basis.
When you break Gallup's results down by political party, you see that Democrats are the only ones feeling any urgency at all. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats want reform now, but 77 percent of Republicans, and 63 percent of independents, want gradual reform. When it comes to health care reform, there is no fierce urgency of now.
The plain fact is, the public's top priority lies elsewhere. "The only issue that people have a sense of fierce urgency about right now is the economy and jobs," says Republican pollster David Winston. "The president is in an uphill battle to try to move the discussion to other topics."
It's not that people think health care is unimportant. They just think the economy and jobs are more important — far more important.
Obama knows that; that's why he tries to link health care and economic recovery, arguing that we can't have real recovery without health care reform. But people aren't buying it.
For a recent report to House Republican Leader John Boehner, Winston asked people to judge two different approaches to today's woes. The choice was between "Republicans who say Congress should be focusing on long-term policies that create jobs, like small business and family tax relief, and controlling federal spending to get our economy moving again," and "Democrats who say that health insurance reform is key to jump-starting the economy by expanding coverage to the uninsured, lowering costs, and restricting the worst insurance company practices, and we must get it done this year."
Fifty-four percent of respondents agreed with the Republican approach, versus 40 percent who agreed with the Democratic approach. That's not because they like Republicans better than Democrats — they don't — but because they want their leaders to directly address the economy and jobs.
Now, with Christina Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, conceding that unemployment, currently nearing 10 percent, is "likely to remain at severely elevated levels" through all of 2010, the contrast between the public's deep worries over jobs and the president's obsession with passing health care reform could not be more striking.
"There's a concern that the administration is off on the wrong topic," Winston says. "Americans are saying, 'What about the economy? What about jobs? Let's get that taken care of, and then we can address health care.' "
But Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress aren't answering. If you want to know why, just go back to that speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. National health care has been the holy grail of the Democratic Party for decades. At this moment, Democrats hold 256 seats in the House and 60 in the Senate, counting the two independents who generally vote with them. Most observers expect them to lose seats in November 2010, and much of next year to be consumed by midterm election campaigning. So there will never be a moment better than now for Obama and his party to achieve their long-cherished goal.
The problem is, the public believes there are more important things to do at this moment. If the president and his party ignore their wishes, the voters' next fiercely urgent priority might be defeating Democrats at election time.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.