by Kenneth T. Walsh
One of President Obama's biggest challenges this fall will be persuading seniors to accept his healthcare proposals. Many elderly voters are deeply worried about "Obama-care" because they fear that his plans will reduce their coverage and increase their costs. Seniors, in fact, are more opposed to Obama's healthcare ideas than any other age group.
This is ironic because those over 65 rely on the government in so many ways, such as through Medicare and Social Security. But they have developed a deep skepticism toward Obama's agenda of expanding the reach and power of Washington. They basically agree with the conservative attack that he is a liberal zealot who wants to inject the government into every nook and cranny of American life--including everyday decisions about the choice of doctors and medical plans, pollsters say. Some seniors specifically fear that the healthcare overhaul will take money away from their cherished Medicare program, and they don't want to take that risk.
Only 35 percent of people 65 and older approve of Obama's handling of healthcare, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in August, substantially lower than the 44 percent who approve of his handling of the issue among people 30 to 64 and the 57 percent among those 18 to 29. And only 8 percent of seniors say Obama's plans would improve their own healthcare, while 42 percent believe that Obama's plans would make it worse.
Seniors have other serious concerns about Obama. They are scared about the vast debt his administration is running up, and they don't like some of his "bailouts" of the car industry, big financial institutions, and people who took out risky mortgage loans, pollsters say.
And during the campaign, while Obama impressed many Americans with his youth and energy, he never quite reassured white seniors that he was one of them. As a result, he lost the over-65 white vote to Republican nominee John McCain by 45 to 53 percent. Many of these voters felt he was too young, too inexperienced, too liberal, and too wedded to change at any cost--and they weren't sure that, as an African-American, he would fairly represent white voters' interests.
All this could result in serious damage to Obama's agenda. Seniors vote in higher proportions than other voters, especially in off-year elections, so members of Congress carefully keep track of their political temperature. Many seniors also have the free time and motivation to pack political forums and multiply the decibel level of their voices. Look at the angry protesters at the town hall meetings of Democratic legislators this summer. TV coverage showed that the most furious and vocal demonstrators were often white seniors.
Obama strategists are well aware that seniors are frequently culturally conservative and that they represent the only major age group Obama lost in the last election, but the strategists haven't figured out a way to stop the hemorrhaging.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are trying to take full advantage. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, addressed the issue last week when he said, "We need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of 'health insurance reform.' " A new RNC ad on TV urges "no cuts in Medicare to pay for a new program" as part of a "seniors' bill of rights."
The fury of the Democrats in response shows how dangerous they think this issue is for them. Not only did the Democratic National Committee attack the GOP effort as a "seniors' bill of lies," but DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse also said, "Republicans have substituted scare tactics for substance and lies for truth." Attempting to resurrect old stereotypes among the elderly about the GOP, Woodhouse added in a news release: "Now, the very Republicans who opposed the creation of Social Security and tried to dismantle it less that four years ago--and the same Republicans who have worked against Medicare since its inception--are now standing up for seniors? With all due respect to Michael Steele, that dog just won't hunt." Democrats say Steele was being hypocritical for attacking Obama's "public option," a government alternative to private insurance, while at the same time Steele was defending the big-government program of Medicare.
But Steele was reflecting the concerns of seniors and seemed to be playing smart politics. The more the GOP drives a wedge between Obama and the elderly, the less effective Obama will be and the more trouble the president and his fellow Democrats will face.