Democrats Prepare for Battle

Posted September 4, 2009 at 7:14pm

President Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders today will attempt to hit the restart button on health care reform as they put into action an aggressive campaign to change the debate and restore public confidence in their leadership.

The battle will begin in earnest on Wednesday evening, when Obama goes before a joint session of Congress to launch his opening salvo on his No. 1 domestic priority. Congressional Democrats are expected to follow the president’s lead in the coming weeks and months, with the Republicans’ opposition strategy also likely to turn on his remarks — at least initially.

“The president is our best messenger,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said late last week. “If he really is going to take the reins of this, you’ll see a lot of amplification of that. You’ll see Senate Democrats rally around the president.—

Democratic strategists expect Obama to use his speech to re-emphasize the need for legislation to overhaul the health insurance industry by arguing that Americans who are satisfied with their coverage shouldn’t be. Obama, sources say, will warn Americans that their insurance might be denied the next time they make a claim — based on a pre-existing condition or caps on the amount of coverage available for a chronic illness.

In addition to any new health care themes and policy proposals that Obama introduces Wednesday night, Democrats intend to continue making the case for health “insurance— reform, as opposed to health “care— reform. Democrats decided to switch strategies in July after their initial message — one that focused on health care coverage for the millions of uninsured — fell flat. Democrats have since been focusing the debate more squarely on the insurance industry and the coverage it provides.

Obama and the Democrats will look to paint Republicans and others opposed to their health care proposals as supporters of the “status quo— who are backing the insurance companies at the expense of the American people. To make this case and try to rally its troops on Capitol Hill, the White House last week released a memo by Obama pollster Joel Benenson claiming that “by large margins, the American people support major reforms to the health care system.—

“We don’t want to spend too much time on defense,— said the senior Democratic Senate aide. “But we need to go after some of the more egregious lies perpetrated by Republicans over the recess.—

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a moderate whose vote could prove crucial as Obama and Congressional leaders try to cobble together 60 votes to pass health care reform out of the Senate, said more must be done by his party’s leadership to push a bill across the finish line. Warner on Thursday evening spent much of his 90-minute town hall meeting in Fredricksburg, Va., defending the effort to reform health care before the approximately 1,500 participants at the event.

“I wish there would have been more time spent on the front end of this debate explaining the financial ramifications of the status quo,— Warner told reporters following the town hall. Referencing Obama’s Wednesday evening speech, he added: “I think he does need to continue to make the case of how this effort is going to help the 85 percent of Americans who’ve already got health care coverage.—

The monthlong August recess featured numerous town hall meetings across the country in which voters voiced their extreme displeasure with Obama and the Democrats’ health care plans, and in some cases, overall governance. The town halls featured vocal protesters and in some cases featured physical altercations between attendees.

When Congress returned from the Fourth of July recess, Obama’s average job approval/disapproval ratings, according to RealClearPolitics.com, stood at 58.5 percent/36.2 percent. The RealClearPolitics.com job approval average as of Friday stood at 53 percent/41.3 percent. During the same period, Congressional Democrats’ approval/disapproval ratings dropped from 35.3 percent/54.7 percent in July to 29 percent/59.7 percent currently.

Republicans, confident that public opinion is on their side, plan to pick up on the growing discontent. Democrats claim otherwise, noting that the White House polling memo (a collection of previous polls on public attitudes toward health care policy) showed that 55 percent of Americans believe the health care system needs fundamental changes, while 65 percent believe health care’s problems will “eventually affect most Americans.—

The GOP strategy includes reminding voters that the Democratic health care bills that have passed out of committee thus far would, over the long term, not lower health care costs, but would add to the federal deficit and include a public insurance option. Like the Democrats, this is a continuation of the messaging they employed before the recess.

“I would describe the public attitude towards Obama as something akin to buyers’ remorse. Thus, Obama has maybe an opportunity on [Wednesday] to halt his slide in the polls. That may be more important than the health care message,— said one Republican operative, who works downtown. “The joint session speech is going to be described as desperate on the right. Obama faces high expectations and needs to say something that amounts to a game-changer. I am not sure what that might be because public opinion is pretty set against anything other than incremental reform.—