Obama’s below-the-radar push builds support for healthcare reform law

The Obama administration is employing an aggressive ground game to build support for its controversial healthcare law that often reaches beyond the Beltway.

While President Obama doesn’t mention healthcare much in his public appearances, the administration consistently touts its popular reforms to make the case for a law with an approval rating stuck just below 50 percent.

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In the two years since Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, the administration has released a deluge of positive reports, press releases and blog posts from the White House and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). The administration consistently highlights new policies as they take effect and tries to keep other popular provisions, such as discounts on prescription drugs, in the news.

HHS regularly updates the total number of seniors who have benefitted from that policy. Seniors have saved roughly $3.4 billion so far because of the healthcare law, according to figures HHS released this week.

Obama will formally launch his reelection campaign on Saturday, but healthcare has so far gotten only a glancing mention in his public appearances and campaign materials.

The campaign’s first ad, titled “Forward,” makes only a brief mention of the landmark law. And Obama did not hold a public event for the second anniversary of the law after marking the one-year and six-month milestones.

Still, it’s clear the administration is trying to do its best to promote the law even if it does not always put Obama in the spotlight to do so.

The website BuzzFeed posted a document Wednesday that it said had been distributed to Obama’s political allies with the goal of making the healthcare law “more politically saleable.”

The substance of the presentation hewed closely to the bullet points the administration frequently hits: explaining that the law expands the use of private insurance, outlining its popular benefits and highlighting the Congressional Budget Office’s determination that the law will decrease the federal deficit.

Democratic strategist Douglas Schoen said the administration is simply doing the best it can with a law that’s not especially popular and might be struck down this summer by the Supreme Court. It has to defend the law, but it doesn’t suit Obama’s political purposes to constantly be front and center in defending it.

“Because there is such a risk of them potentially losing the election over healthcare, they feel they are obliged — required — to advocate for the law,” he said.

He also said the White House is trying to build support with constituencies that will benefit from the healthcare overhaul, including seniors (who get cheaper drugs in Medicare) and young voters (who can now stay on a parent's insurance plan through age 26).

“The Obama administration knows very well that healthcare lost them the 2010 election,” he said. “They believe they didn't explain it well and realize some elements are unpopular. They believe more than that they have to mobilize their base."

Much of the public-relations push over the past two years is focused on relatively small-bore policies. This week, for example, a post on the White House blog highlighted HHS grants to help build and expand community health centers.

The deluge of grant announcements and new reports has become familiar to parts of the Washington press corps, but it's often not the target audience. The community health center grants got much more attention from local media, which noted that the Affordable Care Act was sending new money to their states.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said it’s not surprising that the administration is touting its signature legislative achievement.


“The White House is very comfortable in terms of how the public has responded to the policies. In a campaign situation, where you have a back and forth and you're not making an argument in a vacuum, they believe it's a winning argument,” he said. “And they're right to believe this. They're on the side of trying to reform the healthcare system.”

The Affordable Care Act hasn’t gotten any more popular in the two years since Obama signed it, but it also hasn’t gotten any less popular, even though Republicans continue to assail the law in Congress and on the campaign trail.

HHS and the White House have never stopped defending the law against Republican attacks, and at times they have been able to tie their healthcare announcements to controversies in the daily news cycle. When the tide began to turn against Republicans in the recent battle over contraception, HHS was ready with a report on the number of people who had accessed preventive services under the law.

Voters don’t love the Affordable Care Act, but polls also show that they don’t understand it very well.

An administration official said the steady stream of healthcare announcements is designed to explain new benefits under the healthcare law and the administration will continue to use its resources to explain how the act works.

Lehane said that’s a smart move.

“Healthcare reform is one of their touchstone domestic policies,” he said. “It's something that they clearly believe is a political winner, so regardless of how some people may feel about it, it's always going to be front and center of their campaign."

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