Public Focus on Violent Felons Pushes Health Issue Off Screen


President Clinton’s arguments for massive health care reform rest on the notion that a bona fide crisis exists in America, requiring quick and radical solutions.

He has labored hard to get the public to buy that argument, with some success. But just as the health debate heats up, public attention seems to be drifting away as a crime “crisis” grabs the spotlight.

Clinton’s health reform initiative is under attack from a host of sources, and he needs strong public support to maintain legislative momentum on Capitol Hill. But there is no rock-solid public backing for drastic health care reform the likes of which the President is proposing.


Americans’ concern over the health care issue has bobbed up and down in recent years. Before the 1992 presidential election, it was only a blip on the issue screen, ranked lower than both the economy and illegal drugs.

The 1992 campaign made health care reform an issue, and Clinton boosted public concerns with his nationally televised speech last September.

In a Los Angeles Times Poll taken right after the address, 27% of Americans listed health care as the nation’s top or second most important problem--up from 14% at the beginning of 1993.

But as one of the biggest political fights in decades begins, attention to health care is sliding. Between September and January, the share of Americans naming it as a top national concern in Times polls fell to 12%. At the same time, the percentage calling crime a top problem has increased from 18% to 25%. Crime, not health care, is now cited as the country’s top social problem.

The surge in public concern about crime, which has occurred only since the middle of last year, has little statistical basis. FBI figures show a drop in serious crime in the first half of 1993, and new polls indicate people feel no less safe in their neighborhoods and homes than they have in the past.

Instead, there is a lot to suggest that the current concern over crime has been spawned by massive attention to a series of high-profile, violent murders and shootings.


This situation bears close resemblance to the heightened concern over illegal drug use that seized the media and the nation after the 1986 cocaine overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias.

In a few months, drugs vaulted from the bottom to the top of the public’s issue list, dropping back when the media shifted attention to the breaking Iran-Contra scandal. Ironically, studies showed that drug use among teen-agers was generally down then. It is rising now, but the nation is transfixed with violent felons, not drug offenders.

Nor is it crying out for fast, revolutionary health care changes. The number of Americans who feel that changes in the health care system should be phased in over time edged up from 51% last September to 55% in January. Support for the Clinton plan itself--while still a plurality--dropped from 54% to 47% in the same period, while opposition increased.

There is no way to know how long the current furor over crime will last. But as long as it does, it will compete directly with health care for the public’s attention, making it harder for the President to maintain the crisis mentality that would help muster support on Capitol Hill.

Nation’s Top Problems

What are the most important problems facing this country?

Jan ’94 Sept. ’93 Health care 12% 27% Crime 25% 18%

Source: Los Angeles Times national surveys taken in September and January. Selected responses shown.