Obama's health-care reform speech in Ohio convinces a few skeptics

Connie Anderson, whose cancer-stricken sister wrote to President Obama, with him Monday in Ohio.
Connie Anderson, whose cancer-stricken sister wrote to President Obama, with him Monday in Ohio. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

STRONGSVILLE, OHIO -- Retirees who voted Republican in the last presidential election, Carol and Paul Gerhardstein were unhappy about Democratic plans to overhaul the nation's health-care system. But they showed up at a rally this week to hear President Obama defend his proposals, and a funny thing happened.

"He convinced me that we are doing the right thing. He's going to look out for us," Carol Gerhardstein said after Obama's motorcade departed in a cold drizzle Monday. "I gained a little more trust in him."

With the nation bitterly divided over proposed changes to the health-care system and a House vote possible within days, Obama has jetted three times to swing states where lawmakers are under fierce pressure to choose sides. He'll hold another rally Friday in Fairfax.

It is difficult to judge, amid one of the most intense political battles in recent memory, whether Obama is moving the needle toward greater acceptance of his health-care ambitions. But his reassurances about Medicare and other issues found support among skeptics in Strongsville.

"I was against it. I feel more positive for it now. Hopeful," said Mary Jo O'Toole, another local retiree, after Obama spoke at a community center here. "He sounded convincing."

Confidence in Obama's handling of health-care reform fell dramatically in Ohio after widely publicized town hall criticism of the Democratic proposals last year. In September, 49 percent of Ohioans thought Obama was doing a better job than congressional Republicans on the issue, while 28 percent said the opposite, according to a poll by Quinnipiac University.

By last month, the president was considered only slightly better than the Republicans on the issue, 40 percent to 37 percent, said Quinnipiac's Peter A. Brown. In that poll, 56 percent also said they "mostly disapproved" of the Democrats' proposals.

"It's clearly true that they've lost the public opinion battle at this point," Brown said of the White House. "If the president could talk on a small-group basis to every voter in America, maybe he could convince them, but he hasn't done that yet."

Getting the message

Anyone in Strongsville paying attention -- and plenty who are not -- is bombarded with opinions about Obama's signature domestic initiative. Over the airwaves, the Internet and kitchen tables in this Republican-leaning Cleveland suburb, voters are facing a cacophony befitting the final days of an election campaign.

A radio advertisement for Jim Renacci, a Republican congressional candidate, asserts that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) needs Rep. John Boccieri (D) "to be the deciding vote" on reform. Renacci declares in the ad: "I'm against President Obama's health-care takeover."

Boccieri, whose district lies a few minutes from downtown Strongsville, voted against the Democratic plan and did not join the officeholders at the Obama rally. A worker in his local office said Tuesday that opinionated callers keep the phone ringing.

Still, not everyone has a firm opinion, and many admit they have a limited understanding of the details. Voters often say they are not sure whom to believe, offering a version of a comment by Patrick O'Toole, Mary Jo's husband: "You hear this from one side and that from the other side, and you don't know what's right."

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