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Health-care law supporters tap Democratic strategist to defend it

President Barack Obama says he's open to efforts to "tweak'' his health care overhaul, but will not stand by while Republicans try to take it apart. Obama spoke to the consumer advocacy group Families USA, which strongly supports the new law. (Jan. 28)

Meanwhile, after what some supporters complain was a lackluster start, Democrats have come out swinging, too.

During the debate over repeal in the House, Democratic representatives were armed with detailed statistics listing the numbers of their constituents who stood to gain from the law's most popular provisions, as well as real-life examples of people already benefitting - young adults able to stay on their parents' plans up to age 26; seniors receiving checks to cover gaps in their prescription drug coverage, and small-business owners applying for tax credits to cover their workers.

The White House has helped orchestrate dozens of news conferences with local and national media outlets, op-ed submissions and other activities for cabinet members, Democratic governors and even city mayors.

Every Republican congressional hearing is met with an onslaught of countervailing e-mails and blog posts by people who favor the law - law professors to argue for its constitutionality and heads of business, such as Costco chief executive Jim Sinegal, to argue that it helps the economy.

But polls show the public mood has remained virtually unchanged - with Americans evenly split between those who favor the law and those who oppose it.

Certain provisions, such as the one that prohibits insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, remain wildly popular. Others, such as the requirement that virtually all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, are widely reviled.

And when asked whether they prefer repealing the law in its entirety or just parts of it, support for all-out repeal slips to less than 1 in 5.

Both sides claim to find comfort in that last finding.

"The overwhelming majority of people want to give the law a chance to work rather than repeal it and start over," a senior administration official said. "That's a critical point that opponents of the law seem to have missed."

Republicans counter that their aim is not merely to repeal the law but ultimately to replace it with something else. Therefore, they say, their actions are perfectly aligned with American sentiment.

Robert Blendon, a polling analyst with the Harvard School of Public Health, argues that these nuances are largely irrelevant. What matters most, he said, is the public's overall view.

"There are things people would want to keep and things they would not. But at the end of the day, that is not the choice voters are going to be given in the 2012 elections," he said. "They are going to be asked, 'Overall, is it better to get rid of this law or keep it?' "

When it comes to this up-or-down choice, Blendon added, the law's slow rollout ensures that Democrats and the president will have difficulty winning over additional supporters any time soon.

The law's most sweeping provisions do not go into effect until 2014 - including the insurance mandate, curbs to Medicare spending, the expansion of Medicaid and the establishment of state marketplaces through which many will be able to buy private insurance with government subsidies.

Until then, Blendon said, it doesn't matter how many people benefit from the law's early, and generally most-popular, features. Nor does it matter how aggressively advocates publicize these gains.

"People who are worried about this bill are worried about its aggregate impact - Will it cost too much? Will it add to the deficit? Will it increase taxes?" he said. "You just can't answer their doubts until the overall plan goes into effect."

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