WASHINGTON -- The White House remains in deep denial about the growing unpopularity of President Obama's government healthcare plan.
Recent polls not only show that a clear majority of voters disapprove of his government-run entitlement plan; they show that key groups who make up that majority -- seniors and independents -- are now moving away from the Democrats and toward Republicans in the 2010 election cycle.
Yet there was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday telling reporters "the president believes health care is in better shape ... we think health care is in a better place."
But the highly regarded Rasmussen poll reported earlier Monday that "just 41 percent of voters nationwide now favor the healthcare reform proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats. That's down two points from a week ago and the lowest level of support yet measured."
The Rasmussen poll shows that a 56 percent majority of Americans now oppose the plan, and a slight 47 percent to 46 percent plurality say that its passage is unlikely.
Perhaps most telling of all, senior citizens are strongly opposed to the $1 trillion plan -- with a muscular 59 percent of them opposed and just 33 percent in favor. Significantly, only 16 percent of Americans over 65 years of age "strongly favor" the Democratic bills, while 46 percent are "strongly opposed."
The White House-backed plan would be largely financed by up to $500 billion in Medicare and Medicaid spending cuts that the elderly fear would lead to reduced medical payments, hospital services and other healthcare procedures. The administration and Democratic leaders deny this, saying they intend to cut only waste, fraud and abuse from the programs.
But there is also widespread doubt among rank-and-file Democrats in Congress that you can carve nearly $400 billion out of Medicare's budget without short-changing medical care for the nation's elderly.
And there's also growing fear that the deep cuts that would be required to bankroll Obama's costly healthcare plan will lead to a backlash among seniors in the 2010 midterm elections.
Obama has tried to turn the healthcare debate into a war against big insurance companies, wrongly believing that most Americans think, as he apparently does, that the health-insurance industry is devious, dishonest and unscrupulous. But most Americans don't believe this.
"The most important fundamental is that 68 percent of American voters have health-insurance coverage they rate good or excellent ... Most of these voters approach the healthcare reform debate fearing that they have more to lose than to gain," pollster Scott Rasmussen wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.
A prescient political observation is at the core of the Republicans' strategy to defeat the Democrats' bill: focus on the respective parts that voters fear most -- penalty-enforced federal mandates on struggling middle-class individuals and families to buy health insurance that will squeeze their finances; fees on small businesses fighting to survive that do not provide health care; mandates that will raise health-insurance costs on everyone; and the creation of yet another government entitlement program when Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are nearing the brink of insolvency.
"There is no political downside for Republicans to oppose healthcare bills that will raise insurance premiums, hike taxes, or expand the mountain of federal debt," GOP pollster Whit Ayres wrote this week at the Politico Web site. Ayres' polling finds that "By a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent, voters prefer a plan that 'does not provide health insurance to all Americans but keeps taxes at current levels' over a plan that 'raises taxes in order to provide health insurance to all Americans.'"
Ayres also finds that two of the biggest voting blocs have turned against Obamacare: independent voters who "think far more like Republicans than like Democrats" and seniors, many of whom will lose their popular Medicare Advantage (Medicare plus private insurance) plans.
"Democratic bills target Medicare Advantage for drastic cuts or elimination, which would deny the almost one-quarter of seniors who have chosen Medicare Advantage plans as their preferred option," he says.
If the Democrats succeed in ramrodding their plans into law over fierce public opposition, "they will create an enormous political backlash that will open the door for Republicans to retake control of Congress" in 2010, just as the GOP did after the Hillarycare debacle in 1994, he warned.
This is not an idle GOP political threat. Senate Democrats such as Harry Reid of Nevada, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Michael Bennet in Colorado and Barbara Boxer of California are running behind in their respective bids to keep their jobs. And races for several open Republican seats are surprisingly tight in Ohio, Missouri and New Hampshire.
There is a lot more riding on Obama's healthcare gamble than just its legislative prospects. There is also the risk of a much weaker Democratic congressional majority in the last two years of his presidency.