Would more Americans support health reform is President Obama was white? According to a recent study conducted by Michael Henderson of the University of Mississippi and D. Sunshine Hillygus of Duke University, the answer is yes. The researchers modeled changes in support of health reform between 2008 and 2010, and what they found was striking. According to Henderson and Hillygus, among a group who supported health reform in 2008, whites were 19 percentage points more likely than blacks to be opposed to health reform by 2010. Keep in mind that this race effect is seen after controlling for party affiliation and political ideology. It also controls for income, age, gender, education, and worry over the cost of health care. Said another way, this race effect isn’t likely to be biased by the usual suspects.
Moreover, the researchers included a measure of racial resentment, and those with the highest levels of racial resentment were 29 percentage points more likely to go from supporting health reform in 2008 to opposing it in 2010. These effects are additive. That means that whites with high levels of racial resentment are a whopping 48 percentage points more likely to switch from supporting to opposing health reform in the course of two years, compared to their black counterparts with low levels of racial resentment. That’s a big deal, to paraphrase Joe Biden for a general audience.
That doesn’t mean that people’s concerns over health reform aren’t legitimate. It’s perfectly reasonable to be opposed to an individual mandate, for example. The question opponents of health reform need to ask themselves, though, is how they would feel about the Affordable Care Act if the man who signed it into law looked like them. I don’t think opposition to reform would disappear–after all, when Clinton tried to pass reform legislation in the 1990s, it failed spectacularly–but I do think the tone of the debate would have been a little different, and I don’t think we’d be seeing the continued opposition after passage that we’re seeing now. Just look to the recent past for proof: Medicare Part D is all the evidence you need that a white President can pass a budget-busting piece of legislation without so much as a second glance from the American people. If George W. Bush had been black, perhaps America’s seniors would still be without adequate prescription drug coverage.