If there is anyone or anything President Obama cannot afford to offend in his battle to overhaul the nation’s health care system, it is the powerful seniors lobby, AARP.
Perhaps that is why the White House was so quick to backpedal Wednesday after Mr. Obama mistakenly claimed that the organization, with its tens of millions of politically active members, had already signed on to his plan.
Mr. Obama drew a forceful rejoinder from the group, the nation’s largest organization for retirees, when he said during a town-hall meeting Tuesday in New Hampshire that it was endorsing his health care reform proposal.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged the error Wednesday but said Mr. Obama was not trying to mislead anyone.
That the AARP so forcefully knocked down the claim of support shows the group is wary of being used as a political football. Leaders on both sides of the debate are well aware that seniors have the power to help push through a health care bill or block it entirely.
“We knew [the health care debate] would get to this position, that it would be very difficult, with partisan politics and … misinformation,” AARP spokesman Jim Dau said.
AARP has supported the concept of overhauling the system and has endorsed an $80 billion White House deal with pharmaceutical drug manufacturers that will save seniors money under Medicare Part D, but it has not expressed support for any of the specific pieces of legislation making their way through Congress.
“AARP’s decision to put daylight between them and the president, coupled with the activity of seniors at these town-hall meetings, indicates that the supporters of health care reform haven’t sold it well enough yet,” said David Di Martino, a Democratic media consultant at Blue Line Strategic Communications.
“Because of their depth of knowledge and participation rate in political debates, [seniors] usually have the loudest voice, figuratively, and in this case it seems literally as well.”
Senior citizens, the largest consumers of health care and recipients of the Medicare government health care program, are increasingly questioning the health care reform plans on Capitol Hill. Polling shows that in general, seniors, who are also more likely to be Republican, aren’t likely to support the reform plan. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found that the majority of voters older than 50 oppose a health care overhaul, while voters younger than 50 support it.
As the most active voters - people older than 50 represented about half of all voters in 2008 - seniors have flooded lawmakers and advocacy group with demands for support or opposition, or clarification of several measures being used to drive the debate. In particular, they have shown concern that the House health care bill would encourage euthanasia, ration care or lead to socialized medicine, arguments put out by conservative groups.
Democrats and liberal-leaning organizations have been quick to try to knock down such claims, calling them smear campaigns by opponents of health care reform.
But the conservative 60 Plus Association said its top concern is the provision in the House bill that would provide voluntary counseling for end-of-life care, a move they say could encourage euthanasia.
“If you want to assuage seniors, take that out [of the bill],” said Jim Martin, president of 60 Plus, which started a nearly $2 million television advertising campaign against the reform plan last month.
The group says it has seen a large increase in member activity over health care. AARP also has reported a spike in the number of calls in recent days seeking information or demanding action.
The group has spent much of its work in recent weeks trying to correct misleading information, Mr. Dau said.
AARP and the seniors it says it represents haven’t always seen eye to eye. In the 1980s, the organization backed a catastrophic care program for Medicare, but an outcry from senior citizens forced Congress to repeal the program and dealt a black eye for the AARP.
But AARP remains among the most powerful interests in Washington. Its support helped Republicans add a prescription drug component to Medicare in 2003, and its opposition helped Democrats block President Bush’s efforts to overhaul Social Security in 2005.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama said AARP, which claims about 40 million members, is “endorsing” his reform plans.
“AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare, OK?” Mr. Obama said at a town-hall meeting in Portsmouth.
AARP’s chief operating officer, Tom Nelson, quickly rebutted the president.
“Indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate,” Mr. Nelson said.
White House officials said privately that the president spoke accurately in general terms because AARP does support the reform effort but that he crossed a line when he used the word “endorse.”
A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted July 27 to Aug. 3 found that 39 percent of respondents older than 55 thought the president’s health care plan would improve the quality of health care in the nation. Among those ages 18 to 34 who were surveyed, 46 percent said they thought the plan would improve quality.
Jon Ward contributed to this report.