In drive for health reform, Obama must win over independents

Independents now make up 34 percent of the electorate. Polls suggest they're worried about the cost of reform, but are not averse to a public option.

Jason Reed/REUTERS
US President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office of the White House to the Rose Garden to speak on health care reform in Washington Tuesday.

When President Obama takes the podium Wednesday night at his prime-time press conference, he will have many audiences – the news media, Washington partisans actively hashing out the details on healthcare reform, and the American people.

But perhaps the most important group to bring to his side, at this pivotal moment in his young presidency, is independent voters. They account for nearly the largest chunk of the electorate – 34 percent, which is close to the high of independents in 70 years, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with 35 percent who identify as Democratic and 23 percent Republican.

Independents are by definition swing voters. They may lean toward one major party or the other, but by self-identifying as independent, they are telling politicians: “Persuade me.”

For now, independents tell pollsters they are worried about the cost of health reform, so Obama needs to find a way to pay for the changes that does not alienate that group, analysts say. If he can win them to his side on health reform, thus boosting his overall public support for the effort, that enhances the White House’s clout on Capitol Hill.

So what can Obama say on Wednesday night to advance his cause?

“The problem I see is there are too many plans floating around,” says Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “There are five House and Senate committees looking at this, and each one has different variations on how to do reform and how to pay for it.”

The public, therefore, is confused about what exactly the plan is, and what Obama himself supports. “He needs to start drawing some lines, so people know what he wants to do,” Mr. West says.

There’s a potential downside to that. If Obama were to get specific about his requirements, he would put a bull’s eye on his plan. Already, some Republicans have been zeroing in for the kill as they see Obama on the defensive.

But there are also some good signs for Obama. Americans as a whole, including independents, are not opposed to taxing the rich as a way to pay for reform. During the presidential campaign, Obama asserted that 95 percent of the public would not see their taxes go up to pay for healthcare reform, but the top 5 percent could.

Polls also show support for the so-called “public option” – a proposed public health insurance plan that Obama supports. Its goal is to provide competition to private insurers and thus drive down costs. The public is already comfortable with existing “public options” such as the Veteran’s Administration healthcare system, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The challenge for Obama is to beat back the aggressive messages from conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (D) of South Carolina. Last week, Senator DeMint called health reform Obama’s “Waterloo,” and regularly refers to Obama’s plan as a “government takeover of healthcare.” Even if most Democrats aren’t going to be swayed by DeMint, independents might be

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