It's rare that a presidential speech evokes comparisons to an infomercial.
But, for much of President Obama's speech Monday on his health-care law, that's exactly what it felt like. Obama spent much of the address detailing sign-up options for health care under the new law -- even touting an 800 number to use. "Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers, although I admit that the wait times probably might go up a little bit now that I've read the number out loud on national television," Obama said at one point. "Just visit localhelp.healthcare.gov to find out where in your area you can get help and apply for insurance in person," he said at another. All it needed was an "operators are standing by to take your calls" reference to complete the infomercial feel. (By the way, the best political informercials ever were done by Ross Perot.)
The reason for Obama's somewhat odd -- and decidedly un-Obama -- rhetoric is simple: The long-touted rollout of the health-care law has been rocky -- and that's being kind. Obama, knowing that the problems could threaten public perception of the broader implementation of the law, is seeking to try to calm fears and make clear that the Affordable Care Act is a lot more than HealthCare.gov. "The product is good," Obama said. "The health insurance that's being provided is good. It's high quality, and it's affordable. People can save money -- significant money -- by getting insurance that's being provided through these marketplaces." (He's right to worry; 56 percent of Americans said the Web site's problematic rollout are indicative of broader problems with the law's implementation in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday.)
This attempt at educating the American public on the law is a sort of same song, different day moment for the Obama administration. Throughout the fight to pass the law through Congress, the appeal at the Supreme Court regarding the law's constitutionality and the early stages of implementation, Obama and his senior aides have insisted that the problem isn't with the ACA but rather with misperceptions about it. Once people know what's actually in the law, public opinion would improve. As evidence, they would note that while a majority of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the law, many of its individual components -- extending the time young people can be covered by their parents' insurance, preexisting conditions etc. -- were (and remain) very popular.
Here's the problem. It's been three-and-a-half years since Obama signed the health-care bill into law. Over that time, he has spent oodles of time trying to explain to a skeptical public why they should want it. And, to date at least, it hasn't had any drastic impact on public opinion on the law -- which remains negative.
Could that change? Of course. If the problems with HealthCare.gov are cleaned up sometime soon and the data show tens of thousands of people signing up for coverage, this three-week period of turbulence will be forgotten. Still, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. (That's Ronald Reagan, by the way.) And the president has been almost nothing but explaining his health-care law for the past three years.