Why the White House doesn’t do more to sell health-care reform

June 29, 2012

There's an argument out there right now that goes like this: On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama's health-care law. This is, for the White House, a lucky second chance to do something they should have done years ago: Sell the thing. Get Americans to care about it. Make it popular. But the irony is that, for the White House, the best way to protect the Affordable Care Act may be to keep quiet about it.

Let's take as a given that the White House has not mounted the most masterful of PR campaigns on behalf of its signature legislative achievement. Yesterday was a good example. Moments after we learned that Chief Justice John Roberts had decided the individual mandate was a tax, Republicans began calling the Affordable Care Act "the largest tax increase in history." Is that true? Not even close. PolitiFact ranks it as a "pants-on-fire" lie. But it's good messaging.


Focusing on the heath-care bill may not be the best way to protect it. (Photo: Associated Press)

As for the Democrats' message, it didn't exist. Oh, they were happy about the law being upheld. But did they take the opportunity to really ram home a single message? They didn't fan out on the airwaves saying that the ruling meant no insurer could ever turn you away for a preexisting condition. Rather, President Obama stepped out to give a subdued speech listing, by my count, 14 separate provisions of the bill. It was a perfectly apt summary of the law's most popular elements. But it wasn't much of a rallying cry, and, predictably, Democrats didn't rally around it.

But pundits who think that some other rallying cry would transform public perceptions of the Affordable Care Act underestimate just how sticky the public's view of the law actually is. As you can see from this tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, opinions on the law haven't much changed over the past two years. With a few exceptions, favorability has been in the low 40s, and unfavorability in the slightly higher 40s:

If you think about the experience the average voter is having with this law, those numbers make perfect sense.

You remember that scene in the movie "Anchorman" where everyone is yelling at each other, but Steve Carell isn't quite following, and he just ends up screaming, "Loud noises!"? If you're not following politics closely, the Affordable Care Act debate is all loud noises. Worse, it's loud noises about some of the topics that matter most to you -- your health care, your tax bill, your mother's Medicare benefits. And those loud noises aren't going to stop, because no matter what message Democrats come up with, Republicans are going to keep screaming back at them. Can you blame the public for being skeptical?

If the Affordable Care Act is ever going to become the popular piece of law that its supporters hope it is, it's not going to be because Democrats finally figure out the magic jingle necessary to sell it. It's going to be because it sells itself by providing insurance to 30 million Americans. But it doesn't really start doing that until 2014. The question for the law's supporters is how to keep it alive until then. And the answer, at least in the White House, is simple: Reelect Obama.

It's no exaggeration to say that the future of the law depends on who wins the presidential election. If Obama wins, the law survives till 2014, when it begins delivering its benefits and proving its worth. If Romney wins, it doesn't. And so when the White House thinks about how to make the Affordable Care Act the accomplishment they firmly believe it to be, the strategy is two words: Reelect Obama.

The problem for those who would like to see the administration mount a more fulsome defense of the Affordable Care Act is that there is no evidence that the best way to reelect Obama is to talk about his unpopular health-care law. It's better for the campaign to focus on the auto bailout, on Romney's investments in companies that outsourced jobs, on Obama's success in killing Osama bin Laden, on immigration. And so, while they're doing all that, it looks as if they're letting the Affordable Care Act languish and permitting Republicans to define it. And they are. But the long game here isn't to get the Affordable Care Act's poll numbers up by November. It's to get the Affordable Care Act up and running in 2014, which means keeping Obama's poll numbers above Romney's through November.

 

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Sarah Kliff · June 29, 2012