Why Won’t Obama Sell His Health Care Plan Now That It’s Been Upheld?

Some Democrats are urging Obama to belatedly make the case for his reform. Eleanor Clift reports.

A do-over is rare in politics, and the Supreme Court handed one to President Obama by upholding his much-maligned health-care law.

Backers of the president and the health-care reform that he pushed through—and which cost Democrats the House—would like the administration and its campaign allies to move more aggressively and take advantage of the judicial thumbs-up.

“It’s their own Etch a Sketch moment here,” says Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “It’s an opportunity to completely redefine what it’s going to mean for insured people and really sell this giant new legislative gift that Congress has given them.”

Bennett chose his words carefully, selecting the target audience that Obama needs to reach: people with insurance, not the estimated 30 million without insurance who presumably don’t need convincing. Those who are covered through an employer or on their own worry that they will lose out as the system is stretched to cover everybody else.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that the legislation is now viewed less negatively than it was before the court ruling, with 47 percent supporting the law and 47 percent opposing it. In April only 39 percent backed the Affordable Care Act while 53 percent opposed it, suggesting that voters are beginning to connect the dots of positive health-care benefits—such as keeping adult children on their policy until age 26—with the new law.

House Republicans are voting Wednesday for the 31st time to repeal all or part of Obamacare, providing what Democratic pollster Mark Mellman calls “fodder for Democrats on what they’re voting to take away.” After two years of being on the defensive over the law, some Democrats feel the politics may have shifted to putting the onus on Republicans. A little-noticed amendment to the measure ends federal health-care benefits for lawmakers once they leave Congress and requires that they purchase insurance, like their constituents, on the health-care exchanges, or marketplaces, that are being set up under the law. Democrats have portrayed Republicans as wanting to end benefits for everybody else while keeping their own “generous” plans.

The GOP, meanwhile, is doubling down. Paul Lindsay, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicts that no member of his party will oppose repeal in the House vote. “It’s not an issue we’re afraid to talk about,” he says.

In anticipation of Wednesday’s vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched online ads targeting vulnerable Republicans in California, Illinois, and New York. A hospital-gowned patient sits on an examining table looking forlorn while the word “REPEAL” looms. “Carla knows the breast-cancer screening she got saved her life. Carla doesn’t know that her congresswoman, Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), may vote to repeal the law that added preventative coverage to Medicare ... Tell Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack: she shouldn’t repeal our benefits if she wants to keep hers.”

With such heart-wrenching stories readily available, why has the Obama team shied away from bringing the law into sharper focus now that it’s been ruled constitutional? Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, says it comes down to resources in a campaign that is already fully engaged in an all-out air war.

“The Obama campaign could only try to promote the ACA by extensive paid advertising, but it would mean diverting money from their Romney assault,” he says. “From a campaign perspective, my bet would be if given that choice, the campaign would always choose staying negative on Romney.”

Online ads won’t break the bank, or strain the patience of voters who according to polls are ready to move on. In the Washington Post/ABC poll, just 18 percent want to repeal the whole law, and another 16 percent want to repeal parts of it. Sixty-five percent support the law or take a “wait and see” approach. Obama does bring up health care in his stump speech daily, talking about it Tuesday afternoon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and last week on his bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it has not been a main focus. The campaign’s largest mailing so far focused on health care, and it went to 1 million women.

“They’ve got to do something to get people to better understand what this thing does,” says Bennett. “Otherwise it will be known as Obamacare—expensive, government-run health care.”

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Simplicity is the key, says Melody Miller, Ted Kennedy’s spokeswoman for much of his long crusade for health-care reform. She proposes an ad with two hands, one that ticks off finger by finger five reasons to support the law; the other a fist that unfolds to reveal “Obamacare, health-care security for all,” written on the palm. “The truth” about Obamacare, says a narrator: (1) can’t be denied coverage for preexisting conditions; (2) no cap, you won’t get cut off or lose your home if you have costly medical bills; (3) reduces the deficit, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office; (4) you can keep children on until age 26; (5) you can keep your own doctor and choose your own coverage from a variety of plans, just like members of Congress.

“If it’s simple and easy to understand, I think that you will start seeing people holding up their hands at rallies, with Obamacare written on them,” she says. “We might as well call it that. Everybody else does.”

So far, at least, the White House is not taking that road.