As he tries to regain control of the healthcare debate, President Obama appears to be aiming his arguments at a vast and vital constituency: the tens of millions of Americans who are satisfied with health insurance they already have.
Polls show that a majority of the US public tends to be skeptical about whether the administration’s healthcare reform efforts personally would help them. So this week Mr. Obama is retaking center stage with a series of town hall meetings partly intended to reinforce the administration’s contention that the healthcare status quo isn’t as solid as it appears.
Insurance premiums are skyrocketing, while people with preexisting medical conditions today are routinely denied coverage, Obama said Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H.
“What is truly scary, what is truly risky, is if we do nothing,” he said.
The administration and its supporters on this issue have been hammered in recent weeks by a counterattack from Republicans and others worried about the cost of healthcare reform and possible further government intrusion into private life.
Placard-waving protesters have drowned out some members of Congress at district appearances, while proving irresistible to the media.
In politics, intensity can trump magnitude, which means that the vocal opposition might well be able to block action even if a silent majority favors it, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Thus the White House needs to regroup or risk losing its ability to frame the healthcare issue, he says.
“I think they can get it back, but it is going to be a struggle,” says Dr. Baker.
At the Portsmouth town meeting, Obama took particular aim at insurance firms, saying that the US healthcare system “too often works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people.”
He mentioned people denied coverage due to preexisting problems, rising costs, and the fact that insurance firms can decide whether to cover procedures or medicines recommended by doctors.
“I don’t think government bureaucrats should be meddling, but I also don’t think insurance company bureaucrats should be meddling [in such decisions],” said Obama.
The president did not mention that the insurance industry has been an ally of the White House in the current reform effort – albeit an uneasy one – and had agreed to cover everyone, regardless of preexisting conditions, in return for the new customers that Obama’s planned expansion of national insurance coverage would provide.
Obama said that under his plan Americans with insurance would be able to keep their doctors, and that routine and preventive care would be covered.
His attempt to frame his initiative as superior to the status quo even for insured Americans comes at a time when criticism of the effort seemed to be having some effect.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s July tracking poll on healthcare, a majority of the public remains in favor of taking action. But that support has softened somewhat, dropping from a 61 percent majority in June to 56 percent in July. And a majority of poll respondents, 54 percent, say they are more worried that Congress will pass a bill that is bad for them and their families than that Congress will not pass a bill at all.
According to Kaiser data, arguments that make the public feel more favorable toward passage of health reform legislation include the assertions that it would allow them to keep their current doctor or health plan and would ensure the continued financial health of Medicare.
Arguments that make them feel less favorable toward the effort include the assertions that it would increase their out-of-pocket healthcare costs and could mean cuts in Medicare that make some doctors less willing to participate.
“Public support for health reform will depend on which arguments get through to the American people and, ultimately, how they answer the question of how will health reform affect their family,” said Kaiser Vice President and Director of Public Opinion Mollyann Brodie, in a statement on the organization’s July survey results.
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