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Will Obama's health care plan mirror the 1994 Clinton failure?

  • Story Highlights
  • President Obama is urging Congress to come up with a health care reform plan
  • CNN analyst sees similarities between Obama's push and Clinton's in 1994
  • Obama and top Democrats are seeking coverage for 46 million Americans
By Ed Hornick
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In 1994, universal health care was a key policy plan for then-President Bill Clinton. It eventually failed.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary  Clinton listen to a man's story about health care problems.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton listen to a man's story about health care problems.

Now, 15 years later, another Democratic president is taking on the challenge, but facing an uphill battle from not only from Republicans, but from members of his own party.

Will failing to reform health care have the same consequences for Obama's administration as it did for Clinton's?

Like Obama, Clinton came into office with reforming the nation's health care system as one of his top priorities. Then-first lady Hillary Clinton, who headed the administration's task force on reforming the system, delivered a 1,000-page plan that was dubbed "Hillary Care," which required Americans and permanent resident aliens to enroll in a health plan. Other provisions included Americans below a certain income level paying nothing for care.

Republicans decried the plan as overcomplicated and used it to tag the administration as big government-loving, tax-and-spend liberals.

The plan's failure emboldened Republicans and led to huge Democratic losses in the 1994 midterm elections, allowing the GOP to take control of Congress and stymie other Clinton initiatives.

Now, 15 years later, Obama potentially faces a similar fate.

Obama seeks the overhaul to ensure that health insurance is available to the 46 million Americans currently without coverage while preventing costs to both the government and individuals from continuing to climb. Video Watch more on the health care debate »

The president had set a deadline for passage of a bill before the August congressional recess, but in an interview Monday with PBS's Jim Lehrer, the president said that if Congress tells him it's "going to spill over by a few days or a week," that's fine. Weigh in on the health care debate

A senior White House official adds that while there is a "long way to go" in coming up with legislation, there is a true effort being made to devise a bipartisan plan. See how the plans compare »

"[The Senate] is working in a bipartisan way and despite all of the cacophony of attacks you've heard from some Republicans, I think you've got to give some credit to the Republicans on the finance committee who are making right now a good faith effort, despite pressure, probably from their own party, to work with Democrats to try to come up with something that people can get behind," said White House Communications Director Anita Dunn on Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, says in order for health care reform to get passed, it will take a well-coordinated bipartisan effort.

"I think the president is right. He really does want a bipartisan effort. And that's what it's going to take for it to be for the American people. But the approach to it is kind of like a doctor practicing bad medicine where you fix only symptoms and don't treat the disease. ... the disease is only going to get worse."

But the battle over health care reform is weighed down by complex problems, competing interests, a $1 trillion price tag, conservative Democrats in sticker shock and Republicans sensing an opportunity to regain some of the power they lost in the 2006 congressional elections.

Conservative Bill Kristol wrote in his blog that there is an opportunity to inflict political damage to the president and that opponents shouldn't compromise:

"My advice, for what it's worth: Resist the temptation," Kristol wrote. "This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill."

The White House has so far resisted another idea for raising revenue -- creating a tax on the medical benefits provided by employers. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said he likes the idea, but Obama said it could be too disruptive to a system in which 180 million Americans have health coverage provided by their employers.

But while Obama has remained mostly popular in national polls so far, support for his health care plan has begun to wane.

A CNN Poll of Polls released Wednesday indicates that less than half the country approves of how he's handling the issue.

Forty-seven percent in the poll approve of how the president is dealing with health care reform, with 44 percent disapproving.

The poll averaged the three most recent national surveys that asked about Obama's performance on health care: USA Today/Gallup (July 17-19); ABC/Washington Post (July 15-18) and CBS News (July 9-12).

Meanwhile, Coburn -- a fierce opponent of the current plans being worked up in Congress -- says that Congress needs to slow down.

"Getting this right is better than meeting a political deadline ... I want him to back off the timeline," he said. "Let's start over ... let's fix it all and do it in a way that the American people won't charge it to their grandkids."

CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, who has worked under several administrations, including Clinton's, says there's is concern that Obama may be trying to ram health care legislation through Congress as he did with the economic stimulus plan.

"And they [Americans] don't have a lot of confidence in the past effort in the stimulus plan to put together something comprehensive and -- 'here we go again' ... something that looks like it's being thrown together to many people in the public. So they're not confident that they want it.

And Coburn's argument -- along with nearly all congressional Republicans' -- could pose a risk to Obama's political capital with Americans.

Gergen agrees.

"I think he's got two other problems: One is that he doesn't have a firm plan to sell. ... Second thing is, from his point of view, there are many in the public that'd like to hear from him and also like to see just how he's negotiating the plan," he said. "What they look for is a leadership that says, 'Here's where we're going to go,' not a leadership that says, 'I'm urging Congress to make more progress' "


Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who Obama had tapped to be Health and Human Services director and the point person on health care reform before tax problems derailed his nomination, said getting health care reform passed now will be a major factor in defining Obama's presidency.

"Because he's made it such an issue, and because he has invested so much personal time and effort, this will, more than stimulus and more than anything he has done so far, be a measure of his clout and of his success early on," Daschle was quoted in the New York Times. "And because it is early on, it will define his subsequent years."

CNN's Dana Bash, Paul Steinhauser and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

All About Barack ObamaBill ClintonHealth Care Policy

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