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Signed, not quite sealed, Democratic optimism delivered

Mark Mardell | 19:53 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

wh2_bbc226.jpgIt's chilly outside the White House but the trees have blossomed early after the weekend's sunshine. Inside, President Obama is feeling the warmth of a new spring for his party. That's if the vice-president doesn't get bigger headlines for his whispered words to the president that this was "a big [expletive deleted] deal". But he's right. The mood has changed.

As the president entered the East Room, the politicians gathered to watch the signing chanted: "Fired up and ready to go", one of the slogans of the Obama campaign. They will hope now, in victory, they can recapture something of those heady days.

Being inside the room as the president signed certainly felt like a big deal. Maybe that's the White House "wow" factor. But this is an important moment for the Democratic Party after languishing in the doldrums for the past few months. The president has let it be known that this moment of achievement means more to him than the moment of his election.

The Democrats feel a new optimism with a solid victory under their belt. They feel they've proved that they can govern, can make a difference, can do something hard that required a huge amount of political will. Republicans, of course, feel that this will be a vote-winner for them.

The United States now has near universal healthcare. The administration's much-quoted figure of 95% having cover is a bit of an understatement. A third of that 5% are illegal immigrants. Of the rest, some are those the Congressional Budget Office believes would rather face a fine than take up insurance. The majority are people entitled to Medicaid, the government scheme for the worst off, who currently don't take it up. Then there are a very few in the income bracket of $60-80,000 a year who are exempt from the fine. So, a more accurate portrayal would be: "All but a handful of US citizens will have to take out health insurance or are entitled to join a government scheme."

The Senate will now become an entertaining sideshow for those who love parliamentary wrangling. Their attempts to kill the revised bill will matter for those who care deeply about the various tweaks ordered by the House.

But the fact is the US has a new law on health insurance. If Republicans want to spend their time debating the various backroom deals to buy individual senators' votes, I suspect the Democrats will not mind too much. Their view will be: go right ahead.

Many Republicans will campaign to repeal the bill. But it may not be as easy as it first looks. Nancy Pelosi's office has been excitedly sending around copies of David Frum's article. The conservative columnist and former Bush speech writer argues:

"Even if Republicans scored a 1994-style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the "doughnut hole" and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25-year-olds from their parents' insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there - would President Obama sign such a repeal?"

Those who've been protesting long and loud will not be won over, and may feel angrier than before. But it is harder to keep up the momentum against a law, than a proposed law. There were no Tea Party demos outside the White House today, none outside Congress when the bill was passed. They will not fade away but their focus may change from this bill.

Could it even prove popular? ABC's Gary Langer points out the opinion polls are not quite as relentlessly hostile as some would suggest.

wh_bbc226.jpgOn the BBC News at Ten last night we used a couple of interviews from a charity-run clinic in Los Angles. One was from a doctor who talked about the sense of excitement he'd seen since the passage of the bill; another from a patient who said he had never liked Obama but the president had proved himself to be a great man who could get things done. Now you might expect people at a free clinic to say things like this but if there is any sign this is a more general sentiment, it could be important.

I am not arguing all is fine and dandy for Obama, or that there is not passionate dislike for this bill which could finish off some Democratic careers in the autumn elections. Critical will be the view of independents and swing voters.

But a sense of hope and change was an important part of Obama's victory and if his own party gets a new spring in its step as the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington after months of cold comfort, that in itself can change the political weather.


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