- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2010

President Obama on Tuesday began a public relations offensive geared toward boosting voters’ attitudes toward his health care overhaul and trying to stem Democrats’ midterm election losses from an electorate skeptical of his policies.

Before facing seniors anxious about the effects of the health care law at a suburban Maryland town-hall gathering, Mr. Obama, stung by early criticism of his handling of the Gulf oil spill, stepped up his hard line against BP by saying in an interview on NBC’s “Today” program that he’d have fired the oil company’s chief executive officer and was constantly monitoring the cleanup in order to know “whose ass to kick.”

While his overall approval ratings remain at or near 50 percent, the president’s handling of individual issues such as the oil spill and health care have drawn sharp criticism, prompting him to announce yet another trip to the Gulf next week and to engage in an extended campaign to rehabilitate the health care law’s image.

At a seniors center in Wheaton, Md., Mr. Obama kicked off his health care drive by fielding questions from an audience that seemed confused about the complex plan and sometimes leery about the effects of Medicare cuts on their health care benefits.

The president sought to assuage those fears by spelling out immediate benefits of the health care law, including a series of $250 tax-free checks being mailed out this week to seniors who fall into the federal coverage gap for prescription drugs called the “doughnut hole.”

“Here’s the truth: First and foremost, what you need to know is that the guaranteed Medicare benefits that you’ve earned will not change, regardless of whether you receive them through Medicare or Medicare Advantage,” Mr. Obama said. “Your guaranteed benefits will not change. Eligibility won’t change.”

Months after Mr. Obama signed his top legislative priority into law, national polls show the health care overhaul remains broadly unpopular — a reality that Republicans continue to exploit heading into the November congressional elections. That poses a major challenge for the White House as it seeks to explain complicated provisions that often won’t take effect until 2014, particularly amid what polls say is an increasingly anti-government political atmosphere.

“Seniors are particularly upset about this legislation, and that’s why the White House is staging an event today aimed at convincing them that they’re actually getting a good deal,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “But seniors are right to be skeptical. They were told this law would strengthen Medicare, when in fact it takes a half-trillion dollars out of Medicare to fund a new government program.”

Seniors are a critical constituency in the health care debate, having been the target of fierce lobbying by both parties, and many of the hot-button issues that drove the discussion pending the bill’s passage resurfaced Tuesday. One questioner asked Mr. Obama whether the bill would cause her to lose Medicare Advantage benefits, for example; another member of the audience wanted to know why the government will not fully eradicate the doughnut hole until 2020.

Some analysts said it’s only natural with a bill of this magnitude that Mr. Obama is still explaining it months later, particularly given the avalanche of information coming in from all sides on the overhaul of nearly one-sixth of the nation’s economy.

“When you do a hallmark piece of legislation, it’s not enough just to pass the bill. You still have to talk to the American people about what the bill is going to deliver to them,” said Sean Gibbons, communications director at Third Way, a progressive think tank. “Until people have a chance to experience it for themselves, it’s really important to coax people along and say, ‘This is actually going to make your lives better, and here’s why.’”

At the other end of the spectrum, Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation said Mr. Obama’s efforts will likely go nowhere.

“The American people are not believing the president when he makes pronouncements about ‘Obamacare’ because most of what he’s promised has not come to fruition,” said Mr. Darling, director of Senate relations at Heritage. “This is a way for the administration to try and protect members who voted for a bill that the American people hate.”

Indeed, polls show a majority of voters consistently opposing the overall law, though individual components — such as a coming ban on denial of insurance for pre-existing health problems — garner approval. A Rasmussen Reporters survey on Monday found that 58 percent of Americans support repeal of the law, compared with 35 percent who oppose repeal. A CBS poll from last month found 43 percent approved of the law, while 47 percent disapproved.

Still, Mr. Obama is faring worse when it comes to the public perception of his response to the Gulf oil spill. An ABC News/Washington Post survey shows that 69 percent of Americans view the federal response negatively — more than the 62 percent who viewed the government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 negatively.

But Americans are more critical of BP, with 81 percent disapproving of its response and 64 percent supporting criminal charges against the company, according to the survey.

On Tuesday, the White House said Mr. Obama will travel to the region next week for the fourth time since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and creating a hole at the bottom of the ocean that has spewed millions of gallons of oil, devastating the local economy and wildlife.

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