From Clinton to Obama, push for health care a political risk

“A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it,” former President Bill Clinton told his advisers before a news conference in August 1994.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/file 2014
“A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it,” former President Bill Clinton told his advisers before a news conference in August 1994.

WASHINGTON — Thousands of pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s White House affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As Clinton prepared for an August 1994 news conference in which he hoped to build public support for his struggling — and ultimately unsuccessful — health care overhaul, he told his advisers: ‘‘A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.’’ Later that fall, Clinton’s Democrats were routed in midterm elections and lost control of Congress.

Nearly two decades later, President Obama sought to reassure Americans about his own plan, which won approval in Congress in 2010, by telling them, ‘‘If you like your plan you can keep it.’’ A spate of private policy cancellations forced Obama to recant his pledge that all Americans who liked their plans could simply keep them.


More than 8 million people have signed up for health insurance under the ‘‘Obamacare’’ law; how the overhaul is perceived could become a deciding point for the fate of Obama’s fellow Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections.

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About 7,500 pages of records released Friday through the National Archives and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., show the parallels between the Clinton era and the White House under Obama. The documents may also offer a glimpse into a future as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband’s health care task force, considers another presidential campaign in 2016.

In 1993, Clinton’s advisers estimated that passing the health care bill would require a delicate balance of Democratic and Republican support, needing at least eight moderate Republicans in the Senate and 15 to 20 in the House to win approval.

A strategy memo argued the plan would require support from enough conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans without alienating too many liberal Democrats. But the bill never cleared a House committee.

‘‘The complexity of our bill undermines our chances for success, but without complexity, success is impossible,’’ the unsigned memo said.


It identified several lawmakers as ‘‘swing votes,’’ including Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who became the GOP presidential nominee against Clinton in 1996, and several House members still serving, including Representatives Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan; Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York; and Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey.

After Republicans swept to victory in the 1994 elections, in part because of the failed health care overhaul, the mood at the White House was sour. ‘‘We got slaughtered,’’ communications aide David Dreyer wrote in November 1994.

Obama also had a blunt reaction after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections, in part because of fallout from passage of the new health care law. He described the defeat as ‘‘a shellacking.’’

More recently, Obama has tried to win support in Congress for his plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, pointing to it as a way to pull families out of poverty.

The Clinton administration also had internal debates over the minimum wage, which the president signed into law in 1996, boosting the rate from $4.25 an hour to $5.15 an hour by September 1997.


In a 1998 memo from aide Phil Caplan, it became clear there was internal disagreement with a plan from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, to raise the minimum wage even further, to $7.25 an hour. That proposal had ‘‘no support among your advisers,’’ Caplan told Clinton in his memo.

‘A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.’

Instead, the economic team argued for an increase to $6.15 an hour by 2002. Others, including advisers Rahm Emanuel — now Chicago’s mayor — and Sylvia Mathews Burwell — recently nominated Health and Human Services secretary — urged that the rate be increased to $5.55 in 1999 and the issue revisited in 2000.

Another record shows how Clinton’s team considered ways of addressing the lingering Monica Lewinsky scandal, which some Republicans have cited as Hillary Clinton considers a presidential campaign.

In December 1998, Clinton adviser Benjamin Barber wrote to speechwriter Michael Waldman about the upcoming State of the Union address.

‘‘Will the State of the Union try to grapple with the sordid history of the impeachment and what it has done to American politics and the American political process? Or will it be future-oriented and programmatic, as if nothing had happened?’’ Barber asked.