White House seeks missing health bounce

The White House is aggressively touting the new healthcare law after failing to see an immediate bounce in polls from congressional approval of the legislation.

Faced with the prospect of a Democratic rout in November, the White House last month brought on communications expert Stephanie Cutter, a Capitol Hill veteran who is on her third tour of duty with the administration, to oversee healthcare messaging and at least minimize the political damage from the bill.

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The White House since then has produced a steady stream of reports and events highlighting the law’s benefits for Americans.

The administration’s sales strategy seeks to highlight “early deliverables” in the law that will benefit voters and their families before the midterm elections.

Requirements that insurers cover children with pre-existing conditions and allow young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance policies are clear signs of the benefits of reform becoming a reality, according to the White House.

The pitch includes a more forceful approach with the press. Officials have called reporters at home after hours to ensure that their message is picked up, including members of the trade press not accustomed to the attention.

The aggressive push is seen as crucial to helping vulnerable lawmakers get reelected.

“Overall, in trying to explain to the public why this law is going to be favorable and beneficial to them and their families, I think they’re doing a much, much better job now than they did in the early part of this campaign [before the bill was passed],” said Licy Do Canto, a Democratic healthcare lobbyist and principal with the Raben Group.

Republicans and Democrats alike, however, question whether the effort will help Democrats in the fall.

“Has there really been any difference?” said one GOP lobbyist. “They put out more fluff on the process, but the problems that were there before are still there today. And the polling on healthcare reform has been static since last August or so.”

In the final stages of the healthcare debate, recalcitrant lawmakers were told that Democrats’ best chance in November was to pass the law and show that they can govern.

President Barack Obama himself even predicted that voters would come around after the law was passed, poking fun at doomsday reporting in early April.

“It’s only been a week,” Obama told supporters in Portland, Maine. “Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm? You planted some seeds, and they came out the next day, and they looked, and nothing’s happened!”

That was six and a half weeks ago. Since then, public perception of the bill has hardly budged, with a slight majority of Americans consistently saying they oppose it.

Obama himself has not been at the forefront of the new White House effort, possibly to the frustration of some lawmakers.

“We suggested that the No. 1 spokesperson for this lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) said after a caucus meeting last week during which White House officials briefed House members on implementation steps. “And he can do a great job.”

So far, the White House instead has had Cabinet officials such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius take the lead.

Last week she held a press conference with Attorney General Eric Holder to tout the bill’s $350 million investment over 10 years in efforts to prevent Medicare and Medicaid fraud, which costs the federal government billions of dollars each year. The effort was intended to counter critics who argue the bill will cost more than it saves, adding to the nation’s bulging deficit.

“For years, we tolerated healthcare fraud,” Sebelius said at the event. “But those days are coming to an end.”

Political opponents say it makes sense for Democrats to have Obama focus on the economy and jobs while other officials push the healthcare message.

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Democrats “have to somehow develop effective secondary messengers on this, so that Obama himself does not have to spend the summer defending the healthcare bill,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.

“Because every day he’s defending the healthcare bill, he’s not talking about jobs, and every day he’s not talking about jobs people think he’s out of touch.”

Sebelius has also tried to respond to employers’ concerns with the bill, touting the law’s small-business tax credits and early-retiree reinsurance program. But those efforts were largely drowned out by the news last week that the National Federation of Independent Business is joining states’ lawsuit against the bill.

White House officials “don’t get an empty stage,” Holtz-Eakin said. “They’re competing for the ear of the American people.”

And the administration may yet face its biggest challenge when it tries to set up high-risk pools for sick people who can’t find affordable insurance. The health reform law set aside $5 billion for the policy, much less than what experts agree is needed to carry the policy until 2014.

Still, Do Canto said, there’s something to be gained from informing people about the details so they can base their decision to support or oppose it on content rather than ideology.

Already, some polls suggest support for Republicans’ strategy to repeal the bill has eroded as more voters become aware of specific provisions in the bill that they support.

A poll in late April by Resurgent Republic found that more Americans — 37 percent — favor amending and modifying the bill than favor an outright repeal (35 percent). Among independents, the breakdown was 43 percent to 36.