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Obama, Romney sweep health care laws under a rug

Champions shy on overhauls

WASHINGTON - Now here’s a tag team for the ages: Richard Nixon, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama.

The arc of history joins all three in the cause of universal health care, a goal promoted by Nixon four decades ago and advanced in laws enacted by Romney and Obama in turn. So where are the congratulations between the president and the former Massachusetts governor?

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The most significant health care law since Medicare gets barely a mention by Obama. And when Romney must talk about the law he won in Massachusetts, it’s because someone has put him on the defensive in the Republican presidential primary campaign.

“Big health care reform turns out not to be very popular - and actually unhealthy for the candidates who did it,’’ said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who tracks public opinion on the subject.

The Supreme Court will decide if the new federal health care overhaul or any part of it is unconstitutional after arguments next week. If the law that Republican opponents call “Obamacare’’ survives, “Romneycare’’ will stand in the history books as a guidepost for it, hardly the first time a state has served as a laboratory for national social policy.

The federal and Massachusetts laws share much, including a requirement that individuals carry health insurance, a provision that taxpayers provide help for those who can’t afford it and protections against denial of coverage. And ObamaRomneycare shares more with Nixon’s never-implemented approach - an insurance system anchored in the private market with a hefty government safety net - than with the Clinton administration initiative that collapsed in the 1990s under the weight of its own complexity and reach.

Obama and Romney are not overly modest men, but you might think so when it comes to this subject.

Health care got two sentences in Obama’s State of the Union speech, one more than he devoted to an unfair-trade case against Chinese tires. Romney sticks to the Republican line that Obama’s law must be repealed, and gives so-so reviews of his own law. “Some things worked, some things didn’t, and some things I’d change,’’ he says when pressed.

Stuart Altman has been in the thick of it all as a health policy economist who advised Nixon in the 1970s and four more presidents of both parties since. He also cochaired a Massachusetts task force on health policy in the prelude to Romney’s initiative.

“Poor Romney, he has to run away from it,’’ Altman said, simply because Republicans have made it their refrain that “Obamacare’’ must go, and Romney’s plan can’t easily be divorced from it.

“While Obama’s not running away from it, he’s not actively selling it, and from my point of view that’s unfortunate,’’ said Altman, who supports the law. “It needs a very substantial champion. It needs some substantial selling. Right now the negatives are outweighing the positives, in terms of sales, by about 100 to 1.’’

Romney acknowledged the similarities in a less politically charged time for him, during his 2010 book tour, and praised the individual insurance mandate that, for conservatives, has become the most contentious part of the overhaul.

Romney’s law is credited with expanding coverage but not controlling costs, which it did not set out explicitly to do. Public opinion surveys in Massachusetts consistently suggest it is well regarded, and there has been no serious effort to roll it back.

“It’s almost as if we’re discussing poll results from a separate country,’’ Blendon said.

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