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

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A03

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."

"I think he's sincere, but people can be sincere and make mistakes," O'Toole said of Obama. "I hope Congress has studied this and researched it. I don't think a year is long enough. I still don't know what I'd do."

When Gerhardstein and her husband took their seats Monday in the crowd of 1,700, mostly Obama supporters, she felt unsure: "I didn't know what his program was. We wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth."

Seniors have been strong opponents of Obama's proposals since the health-care debate intensified in August, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling. In a survey late last year, a substantial majority of seniors said they expected that the reform effort would weaken Medicare.

Obama tried to counter that fear Monday, calling such assertions "the most insidious argument" his opponents make.

"There is no cutting of your guaranteed Medicare benefits. Period," Obama declared. "This proposal makes Medicare stronger, it makes the coverage better, and it makes the finances more secure. Anybody who says otherwise is either misinformed -- or they're trying to misinform you."

Sizing up the speech

Afterward, Dave Haskell leaned on a cane to ease his back as he assessed Obama's performance. He thought the president "did pretty good," but he feels "iffy" about the bill. If anything, Haskell would like it to go further to control costs, a criticism heard on both sides -- with fingers pointed at different culprits.

"Hopefully they'll be able to do some tinkering with it after the fact," Haskell said.

Mike Gallagher, the Republican City Council president, was less impressed. In Obama's approach, he sees the risk of a mountain of government costs that taxpayers cannot afford.

"It's the beginning of the end of this country as we know it," Gallagher said. "The way it could turn out well is the parts the Republicans and Democrats agree on, start with those and then work on the others."

With activists on both sides dug in, he said, "the middle will decide this, and the middle is shifting against."

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a fervent health-care reformer who attended the Obama rally, sees the shift going the other way.

"I think it is pretty clear the mood has changed for health insurance. I feel it in the mail we get and the conversations and the reactions," Brown said. Obama's "speeches matter when he comes to Ohio, Pennsylvania or Missouri. His individual conversations matter."

Nonetheless, Obama's task is tough. After Patrick O'Toole thought about it overnight, he had second thoughts. "He's a great salesman, but I still would've walked out of the showroom without a car," he said.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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