SEPTEMBER 1, 2009
By JANET ADAMY and JONATHAN WEISMAN
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A3
WASHINGTON -- Recent town-hall uproars weren't just about health care. They were also eruptions of concern that the government is taking on too much at once.
That suggests trouble for the president and his party, and fears of losses in next year's midterm election are likely to shape the Democrats' fall agenda.
At August's town-hall meetings, voters often started with complaints about health care, only to shift to frustrations about all the other things President Barack Obama and the Democrats have done or tried to do since January. The $787 billion economic-stimulus package, the government-led rescue of General Motors Corp. and climate-change legislation all came in for criticism.
"A lot of the anxiety we face here has less to do with health care and everything to do with the overall state of the economy and government," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat.
"I have seen a level of dissatisfaction and even anger that I haven't experienced in the years that I've been a member of Congress," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told an audience at a health-care meeting in Kansas City on Monday.
Although the election is still far off, political forecasters predict that Democrats could run into trouble in the 2010 midterm vote.
"What we're seeing now, both in terms of numbers and the feel out there, this is how big waves feel early on," said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed any talk of political doom hanging over the president and his party.
"It would be like me predicting who's going to win the World Series, not in a few months but in a year and a few months," he said Monday, adding that he will leave "extremely smart prognosticators" to "their stately craft."
August, typically a sleepy month, dealt Democrats a tough hand this year.
Snafus in the federal "cash for clunkers" program -- which gave people rebates to trade in gas-guzzling cars for more fuel-efficient new vehicles -- highlighted how disorganization can hamper government plans. It was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops so far in the war in Afghanistan. Attorney General Eric Holder poked a potential hornets' nest by appointing a prosecutor to investigate Central Intelligence Agency interrogators. And White House budget forecasters said they now project $9 trillion of additional federal debt over the next decade, adding $2 trillion to an earlier estimate.
Last year's election gave Democrats a mandate for big changes that they feel still applies. They won seats by arguing that Republicans had failed to act to keep the housing market and financial system from crumbling.
Mr. Obama also inherited a large budget deficit and expanded it further with economic-stimulus spending.
Many town-hall attendees cite the deficit as a reason for holding off on health care, even though Mr. Obama and other Democrats say they won't pass a plan that adds to the national debt.
Current proposals would cost about $1 trillion over 10 years, mostly to expand coverage to the nation's uninsured. All proposals aim to be deficit-neutral, offsetting new spending with cuts and some new taxes.
Anger over financial bailouts, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program begun under the administration of former President George W. Bush, has been especially strong. At a meeting in Wheeling, W.Va., Democratic Rep. Alan B. Mollohan said a health-care bill was needed to help "folks in terrible situations." A member of the audience yelled out: "Use TARP funds!"
In South Sioux City, Neb., last week, Van Phillips took the microphone to ask Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson how America can pay for a health overhaul with all the other programs going on.
"We've got a pretty good chunk out there already in the stimulus. We just came back with the cash for clunkers," said Mr. Phillips, a retired superintendent of schools. "I guess I'm concerned -- how do we make all of this flow?"
Democrats concede they are fighting the perception that government is overstretched, though they say the economic stresses actually make a health-care overhaul more important because Democratic plans would help people who lose employer-provided health insurance.
Mr. Weiner said the crowded legislative calendar and a bruising battle in June over a climate bill narrowly approved by the House is wearing down Democrats, particularly those in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition.
"We had a lot of House members who cast a tough vote on energy, and thought they could catch their breath, only to have health care bear down on them," he said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said, "I've warned our colleagues from day one back in January, this is going to be a very challenging cycle. You just have to look historically....We're pleased people are being shaken out of their complacency."
Other analysts think any forecast this early is overblown.
"A year is an eternity, maybe two eternities, in politics," said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
But Mr. Gonzales agreed that skepticism about too much action in Washington can drive voters. Anger about the government led to broad Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, and now that Democrats are running the government, activism has only increased, he said.
"What we're seeing here is this larger debate about what the role of government is," said William McInturff, a Republican pollster who conducts The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. "The health-care debate is at that fault line.
—Louise Radnofsky and Neil King Jr. contributed to this article
At town-hall meetings in August, such as this one in Reston, Va., voters often started with complaints about health care, only to shift to broader frustrations about actions by Democrats.
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