A look back at the polling from 1964 and 1965 shows the American public giving broad support to the idea of Medicare. In January 1965, Gallup tested reactions to a congressional plan calling for compulsory health insurance for the elderly that would be financed out of increased Social Security taxes; 63% approved of this plan while just 28% disapproved. Harris polling at the time found comparable levels of public support for Medicare. In addition, Harris showed that, by 46% to 36%, more Americans said they preferred “medical care for the aged funded by Social Security taxes over a plan of expanded private health insurance.”

Public reactions are very different these days: First, the polls show the public divided over the government requiring all people to have health insurance. Second, there is opposition to increasing taxes — except on the very wealthy — to pay for insuring the uninsured. Third, even before debate began, nearly half (46%) said in a Pew Research survey they were concerned about government getting too involved in health care, despite their desire for the government to take up the issue. By July, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 54% worrying that the Congress and the president would pass a bill that will not be good for them. Fewer (39%) worried that health care reform will not pass this year.

Broad distrust of government — which was not evident in the 1960s — is an important reason why Americans are reacting so differently to health care reform in 2009 than they did in 1965.