Voters give Obama edge on healthcare

Voters may not love “ObamaCare,” but they still prefer President Obama to Mitt Romney on healthcare issues.

Several recent polls show Obama with an advantage — often a sizeable one — when voters are asked which candidate would do a better job handling healthcare. Obama held that lead even before Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, which elevated the debate over Ryan’s controversial Medicare plan.

Yet polling also shows that the public is deeply divided, and leans negative, on Obama’s signature healthcare law. In the latest tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 38 percent had a favorable view of the Affordable Care Act, while 43 percent had an unfavorable view.

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Republicans have been assaulting Obama’s healthcare plans almost non-stop for three years, and their attacks have helped stifle public approval of the law. But on the overall issue, Obama is still ahead.

A CNN/ORC poll earlier this week gave Obama a nine-point lead on healthcare (up from just 1 point a month earlier). An Ipsos poll conducted for Reuters put Obama ahead of Romney 51-37 on healthcare, basically unchanged since May.

The New York Times’ last round of swing-state polling, conducted late last month, put Obama up by at least six points on healthcare with voters in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

So, why do voters think Obama would do better on healthcare if they don’t like what he’s done on healthcare?

The paradox mirrors Republicans’ larger frustration with the race — that voters aren’t happy with the economy, but still seem inclined to vote for Obama. And some see a similar explanation for the gap on healthcare.

“People like him. They want to believe him,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who heads the Republican Policy Committee.

Price said Obama has an edge on healthcare because of promises the president made about the Affordable Care Act, including lower premiums, that haven’t materialized.

Democrats, though, see the beginnings of what they always promised would happen: As the law is taking root and new benefits are starting to kick in, the public is coming around.

Chris Jennings, a healthcare strategist who worked in the Clinton administration, said it’s always easier to be the party defending the status quo than the one trying to change existing programs.

“In 2010 it hurt President Obama; now I think it’s moving toward helping,” Jennings said.

Romney and Ryan never miss an opportunity to promise that they’ll repeal “ObamaCare.” But two years into the law’s implementation, “ObamaCare” is much less abstract and repeal would mean eliminating benefits that people have started to actually see.

Three million young people have gotten access to their parents’ healthcare plans because of the Affordable Care Act, according to the Health and Human Services Department, and seniors have saved millions on prescription drugs and lower-cost preventive services.

HHS has been working forcefully to raise public awareness of those benefits. Obama has also made the law part of his stump speech, despite pundits’ predictions that he would run away from the issue.

And the entire Democratic Party seemed to suddenly rediscover its signature domestic achievement during their convention in Charlotte, N.C. earlier this month.

That was no accident, Jennings said. He credited former President Bill Clinton with a strong explanation of how the law works — for example, noting that it expands access to private insurance. The convention showed that Democrats have successfully tuned around their messaging on healthcare, he said.

“If you are focused and relentless and you have a policy argument to be made, you’re usually successful over time,” Jennings said.

Of course, Ryan is also part of the equation. Democrats said as soon as he was picked as the GOP vice presidential nominee that the choice would work to their advantage, because it would shift the debate away from the health law and toward Ryan’s 2011 proposal to privatize Medicare.

But Ryan has also opened up a new opportunity to defend the healthcare law, Jennings said, by making it easier for Obama to draw sharp distinctions, drawing a broader context around popular healthcare provisions like the ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions.

“It is, maybe even ironically, a gift for supporters of health reform and Democrats who are talking about it from a policy and political perspective,” he said.