President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans have reinvigorated their clash over health care as they fight for the hearts and minds of midterm election voters.
Obama, during a tele-town-hall meeting Tuesday with seniors in Maryland, kicked off a campaign to reverse sagging public opinion on the health care reform bill that he signed into law in March — an effort that the White House hopes will bolster the November prospects of vulnerable Congressional Democrats.
House and Senate Republicans, who implemented a coordinated messaging campaign to attack the health care law immediately after its enactment, responded by highlighting this ongoing effort and rebutting the administration's sales pitch.
Democrats acknowledged that Obama's effort is crucial for changing public perception and elevating their political standing.
"There were so many lies told about this health care law, and there is so much confusion about it, that I think every step the White House can take to actually show people what in the real world is happening with it is a very worthy step," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said, adding about the president's role in helping Democrats: "He's got the bulliest pulpit we've got."
"I think it's a dangerous approach because people are really upset out there," countered Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who in the 1990s collaborated with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to create the State Children's Health Insurance Program. "It's really almost laughable what they've done to the American people. But they're starting to catch on to it, and they're getting mad."
Almost from the moment the health care reform package was signed into law on March 23, Congressional Republicans embarked on a highly coordinated effort to stoke public dissatisfaction with the legislation and shine a light on what GOP Members contend are its negative, unintended consequences.
The House and Senate Republican leadership teams have released dozens of documents to make that case, scheduled floor time for Members to give speeches and coordinated the booking of radio and television appearances. Republican leadership staffers from both chambers continue to meet every week to strategize on health care.
On Tuesday, Republicans moved to pre-empt Obama's Maryland event before it began. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) focused on health care during his morning floor remarks, while the two GOP Congressional campaign committees blasted press releases to local media around the country. The Republican National Committee hosted an afternoon conference call with Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), who are both doctors.
"Some of you have written about this major PR campaign to try to make something that's immensely unpopular popular, including a combination of taxpayer money and privately raised money. And I assume all this is designed to occur before the November election," McConnell told reporters, referring to a brochure that the administration mailed to millions of seniors touting the benefits of health care reform and to plans by Democratic-leaning advocacy groups to promote the law.
"This level of cynicism is not unheard of in Washington," McConnell added. "But I find [it] regretful in the willingness to use the levers of government for a purpose that seems to me is highly questionable."
Some recent opinion polls show the public would like to give the law a chance to work and might be less receptive to the Republican message of "repeal and replace" than they were initially. Still, surveys show a majority of Americans remain opposed to the law, with the RealClearPolitics.com average of all polls taken from April 25 to May 29 showing 52 percent opposed and 41.5 percent in favor.
However, the administration expects that to turn around as Obama's promotion campaign progresses. One White House official indicated that the administration's public relations strategy involves twinning presidential events with the implementation of various aspects of the law. Tuesday's event with seniors was timed to coincide with the mailing of $250 checks to seniors who qualified for an expansion of prescription drug coverage under Medicare as called for in the overhaul.
"Today's town hall was just one example of our efforts, and we will continue to reach out to all Americans to discuss this landmark law," the White House official said.
Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) called Obama's public relations campaign "important" for Democrats. "When people know the truth, I think they feel better and better about it," he said.
It's not an accident that the health care fight reignited this week over how the new law affects Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for seniors, who are a key voting bloc and one that votes in midterm elections in greater propensity than other demographics.
The health law will cut $500 million from Medicare and end subsidies for the Medicare Advantage insurance program popular with many seniors. But it also will close a gap in funding for prescription drug coverage that had forced some seniors to pay out of pocket, and Democrats insist seniors — with Obama's help — will come to embrace the law.
"There's still a lot of misinformation, [with] the other side trying to continue to put out misinformation. So, as the new provisions take effect, it's critical that the president be out there," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.
Republicans respond that they are happy to have this debate with the president and would be thrilled if the Democrats chose to raise the subject every day between now and the Nov. 2 elections.
Sen. George LeMieux (R), whose Florida constituents include a large and politically active population of seniors, argued that voters in his state and around the country have yet to really feel the effects of the law — nor do they understand its consequences. But once they do, he said, Democrats will really feel the heat.
In particular, LeMieux predicted that the elimination of Medicare Advantage would be met with extreme unhappiness by the about 1 million Florida seniors enrolled in the program.
"The more that Floridians, and I think the rest of Americans, know about this health care law, the less there is to like," he said. "We are going to keep talking about it. And, I think really, the more [Obama] talks about it, the more people find out they don't like it."
Correction: June 14, 2010
The article incorrectly reported that the new health care law eliminates Medicare Advantage, a program through which private companies offer health insurance policies as an alternative to the standard, government-run Medicare program for seniors. The law eliminates government subsidies for Medicare Advantage, which critics contend will make it unaffordable and result in companies dropping out of the program.