Obama switches strategies on health care; selling law to public after it passes

Michelle Peele from College Park protested the health-care legislation at a tea party demonstration on Capitol Hill.
Michelle Peele from College Park protested the health-care legislation at a tea party demonstration on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear
Sunday, March 21, 2010

For more than a year, President Obama has tailored his rhetoric on health care to focus on the passage of sweeping legislation. In each of his 54 speeches on the subject, the goal has always been the same: getting a bill to his desk.

But his remarks to House lawmakers Saturday afternoon -- full of emotion and references to history even before the final votes have been cast -- betrayed a new ambition: selling the benefits to the American people once the congressional battle is over.

The president was careful not to declare victory. Yet his comments all but assumed that a new reality will soon be upon official Washington: The health-care legislation will be law.

"Is this the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare?" Obama said. "Absolutely."

Later, he said: "It turns out that, in fact, people who like their health insurance are going to be able to keep their health insurance, that there's no government takeover. If they like their doctor, they will be able to keep their doctor. In fact, they will be more likely to keep their doctor because of a stronger system."

Obama's speech, which cable news networks carried live, appeared designed to begin the pivot toward the fall elections. And it demonstrated to nervous lawmakers how they might rehabilitate the legislation among skeptical constituents.

Obama's advice Saturday to Democrats was unambiguous: When you are campaigning this fall, sell this new law as a mainstream, middle-class, middle-of-the-road effort, not the radical approach that opponents have described.

"It will turn out that this piece of historic legislation is built on the private insurance we have now and runs straight down the center of the American political fault line," he said.

He even offered Democrats a slogan for the bill, which fits easily on a bumper sticker: "This is a Patient's Bill of Rights on steroids."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) retorted: "Some may have concluded that there's more merit in following the cajoling voices in Washington than the clear voices of their constituents back home, more merit in choosing to side with Democrat leaders in their quest to ram this bill through over the wishes of the American people. But taking a bill that House Democrats were too embarrassed to vote on, adding more than $50 billion in new taxes and slashing $60 billion more from our seniors' Medicare and keeping sweetheart deals is not reform."

The president predicted that the GOP would have a tougher time criticizing the legislation after it became law.

A senior Democratic adviser who is in frequent contact with the White House agreed, saying that passage of the bill will "dramatically" shift the contours of the debate and put Republicans in the position of criticizing a new law with many benefits for many people. The adviser requested anonymity in order to discuss future White House strategy.

"Instead of the false specter of death panels and government bureaucrats, the real benefits of tax credits for small business, graduating seniors staying on their parents' policies this spring, no child denied coverage for asthma or other preexisting conditions, becomes a reality," the adviser said after the speech. "And the Republicans are then on the position of taking away benefits."

The adviser added, "The next argument on health will be far more favorable terrain."

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