Obama Seeks to Salvage Health-Law Support with New Focus

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By Bloomberg News Service

President Barack Obama, seeking to halt the erosion in public support for his health-care law, is using the power of his office to try to change the conversation.

After struggling for two months to fix the federal online insurance exchange at the core of the law, Obama yesterday began what aides say will be a three-week campaign to use his bully pulpit to regain momentum for his signature domestic initiative.

He can’t make Americans overlook the botched rollout of the exchange or the cancellation of millions of policies. Yet he can focus attention on popular provisions such as free preventive care, protecting those with pre-existing conditions and letting young people stay on their parents’ plans until age 26.

“The word ‘Obamacare’ is dragging down all those things that people love, and what the president is trying to do is flip that, so that all the things people love will actually lift up the support” for the law, said Steve McMahon, a Democratic political strategist and co-founder of Purple Strategies, a Washington public affairs and communications firm.

It will be a tough sale. About half the country has consistently been against the law, and opposition has swelled since the website’s Oct. 1 rollout. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they opposed the law in a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken Nov. 14-17, and the country was evenly split 49 percent to 49 percent on whether the program could even be salvaged because of its flawed start.

Credibility Suffers

Obama’s credibility has also suffered. In a CNN/ORC poll taken Nov. 18-20, 46 percent of Americans said they considered him “honest and trustworthy,” down from 51 percent two months earlier. So has his reputation for competence. Forty percent of Americans said he can manage government “effectively,” down from 47 percent in June.

Republican leaders dismissed the idea that Obama will be able to turn public opinion in favor of the law. “The more America learns of this plan, the more they’re opposed to it,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the chief Republican vote-counter in the House, told reporters yesterday.

McCarthy said that belies assurances the administration gave to “nervous Democrats” in 2009, when the law was being debated. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed Congress without a single Republican vote.

“We may never satisfy the law’s opponents,” Obama said yesterday at a White House-organized event in Washington. “I would advise them to check with the people who are here today and the people that they represent all across the country whose lives have been changed for the better” by the law.

Limited Success

Even after a 2008 presidential campaign that regularly attracted enthusiastic crowds to rallies, Obama in the White House has faced a difficult time using the bully pulpit to build support for his agenda.

Republicans won a 2010 midterm election victory on a campaign critical of Obamacare and the president’s economic-stimulus plan. And he has been unable to generate public pressure on House Republicans to pass his second-term priorities such as gun control and a new immigration policy.

In maintaining support for his health-care law, Obama has an advantage in that the law has already survived one Supreme Court challenge and can’t be repealed without a two-thirds majority of Congress to override a presidential veto.

Youth Unimpressed

White House officials say it’s critical to attract young people to the insurance exchanges in the first year to provide a sound actuarial footing, since they’re less likely to need health care.

Yet the nation’s youth isn’t supporting the plan, a survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics shows. More than half of those 18 to 29 years old say they disapprove of Obamacare and expect it will raise their health-care costs. Four in 10 anticipate their coverage will get worse, and almost half in that age group say they’re unlikely to enroll in insurance through a government exchange, even if eligible.

Obama’s health-care public relations offensive reflects an appreciation of the difficulties presidents face in shaping public opinion, said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University and author of “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit.”

He isn’t challenging fundamental public beliefs, Edwards said. He’s “just trying to prime pre-existing views” such as support for the law’s benefits to consumers.

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