Obama’s healthcare sell

Ahh, we love a horserace in this town. Who’s up and who’s down drives political talk and media coverage. Recently a great deal of ink and airtime has been devoted to President Obama’s sliding poll numbers and what that may bode for his healthcare proposal. The president was riding so high for so long that some slippage is to be expected. Numbers this week putting his approval rating at 59 percent still leave him in good territory with the economy anemic and a massive healthcare overhaul driving political divisions between partisans.

Republicans have grown particularly cool to the president’s healthcare reform ideas as they begin to ponder the cost of the new plan. Covering the nearly 50 million uninsured in the country sounds like a good idea, until a trillion-dollar price tag is attached. Then priorities shift toward protecting the jobs and insurance coverage of working families, and that might mean even a little less reform than the president and the leadership of the House and Senate have in mind.

Some on the right certainly think they smell blood in the water. We have Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) predicting that healthcare will be the president’s “Waterloo” and William Kristol challenging the party to “go for the kill” on healthcare reform. That is powerful, bare-knuckled political rhetoric, but it’s a little extreme for the mood the nation is in right now. Americans don’t see healthcare reform in purely partisan political terms, even though political affiliation and income do drive support or opposition.

There is still a national desire for reform and a frustration with the status quo, particularly with the increasing cost of coverage putting more and more middle-income families at risk of losing healthcare. The Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed a majority still supporting the outlines of the legislation moving in various House and Senate committees. Three-quarters of Democrats support the plan generally, as do 60 percent of independents. More than three-quarters of Republicans, however, are opposed to what they see making its way through Congress.

So the stage is set for an epic political battle. The president wants to pass landmark reform legislation, the Republican right wants to use healthcare to fuel a GOP resurgence a la 1994, and moderates in both parties are looking to avoid becoming collateral damage.

The president, for one, seems more than ready for the fight. He is back in full campaign mode. Nine speeches on healthcare in as many days, a primetime news conference (happening after this column is filed) and a renewed push by Organizing for America and the Democratic National Committee — the political foot soldiers for the Obama White House were the tactics that kicked off an intense push by the president.

Obama has always ranked healthcare reform at the top of his domestic agenda, but that has taken a back seat, at least publicly, to shaping the details of the legislation. Now that two of three House committees dealing with healthcare have reported out bills and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has its proposal in the mix, the president has apparently decided it is time to climb back in the saddle and hit the campaign trail. Speaking to a group of liberal-leaning bloggers on a conference call this week, the president noted “there is a default position to inertia” in Washington. The president urged the bloggers to turn up the heat on House and Senate members to keep healthcare moving forward. Expect to see the president turning up the temperature as well.

He travels to Ohio on Thursday for a town hall meeting on healthcare. This is a format in which the president shines. The well-produced events always feature adoring crowds, with Obama once again the outsider. He gets a chance to lay out his message and then field generally softball questions. Most importantly, he gets to put himself with the people, showing his concerns for their issues — often with a personal moment of a hug or reassuring words for one of the participants.

The president is his own best messenger, and he knows his audience and his message well. He must reassure moderate voters that whatever reform bill he signs will reduce costs, cover people even if they have a pre-existing condition and prevent working families from losing their coverage if they change or lose their jobs. At the same time, he must reassure moderate Democrats in the House and Senate that they won’t lose their jobs because they supported healthcare reform.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com