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Dionne: Obama needs to win his friends back

  • (DAVID HORSEY / Los Angeles Times)

President Barack Obama is furiously fending off those “winter of discontent” stories, and it's not even winter yet.

The news about the health care law that is supposed to be his greatest achievement is almost uniformly downbeat. The public is unhappy with national politicians of all kinds. And then there are the polls, a currency that the political world — despite ritualistic denials — values more than any other.

On Tuesday, the Quinnipiac poll showed Obama with the lowest approval rating of his presidency. Only 39 percent approved his performance; 54 percent disapproved. The Quinnipiac numbers echoed those of a recent Pew survey that pegged the president's job approval at 41 percent, with 53 percent disapproving.

In situations of this sort, there is always a search for an instant repair. “Fix the website” is the most obvious, and it's certainly necessary. But a tech problem has now been compounded by the reality of health care reform itself. The small but highly visible individual insurance market was volatile before there ever was Obamacare. But it's hardly surprising that some of those who are in it are angry when plans are canceled and premiums rise.

The very purpose of insurance reform is to create a broad market in which the less healthy will be able to get coverage at affordable prices. This made a certain amount of cost shifting inevitable, a truth captured succinctly by the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, one of the nation's premier health policy writers: “You can't fix health insurance without changing health insurance.”

But the president's promise that Americans would be able to keep their policies downplayed this risk, and it now haunts him. A Republican opposition that never wanted Obamacare to work — “an organized constituency for failure,” in former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers' phrase — jumped on Obama's words even as GOP politicians disrupted the law at the state level.

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