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Michael L. Millenson Headshot

Health Care Reform: How Obama Delivered The Message

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While it's comforting to just blame the GOP for the unhappiness with health reform threatening the president's re-election, the truth is that Barack Obama repeatedly botched, bungled and bobbled the health reform message. There were three big mistakes:

The Passionless Play While Candidate Obama proclaimed a passionate moral commitment to fix American health care, President Obama delved into legislative details.

When a Baptist minister at a nationally televised town hall asked in mid-2009 whether reform would cause his benefits to be taxed due to "government taking over health care," Candidate Obama might have replied that 22,000 of the minister's neighbors die each year because they lack any benefits at all. Instead, President Obama's three-part reply recapped his plans for tax code fairness.

While Republicans railed about mythical "death panels," and angry Tea Party demonstrators held signs showing Obama with a Hitler moustache, the president opted to leave emotion to his opponents. The former grassroots organizer who inspired a million people of all ages and ethnicities to flock to Washington for his inauguration never once tried to mobilize ordinary Americans to demand a basic right available in all other industrialized nations. In fact, he hasn't even mobilized the nearly 50 million uninsured, who have no more favorable opinion about the new law than those with health insurance!

When CNN captured a sobbing middle-aged woman telling Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) of her husband's brain tumor, only to get the reply, "Government is not the answer," the president might have helped all Americans feel her pain. He did nothing of the sort. The public face of "Obamacare" was never a mother, father, spouse or child, but, just as the Republicans wished, it remained...Obama.

The Friend (or Enemy) of the People Hard as it is to recall, a New York Times-CBS News poll in mid-2009 showed nearly three-quarters of Americans supported universal coverage through a government-administered plan like Medicare. But the survey also revealed "considerable unease about the impact of heightened government involvement on...the quality of the respondents' own medical care."

That unease surfaced even in the heart of liberal Chicago, at a Second City show satirizing the new president. A doctor tells a woman her diagnosis gives her only three months to live. When she pleads for help, the doctor tells her the good news is that Obama's health reform plan means she's scheduled for her next visit just six months from now. The parking lot was packed with "Obama '08" stickers, but the audience still broke out in laughter.

The comedy worked because it connected with real feelings. GOP consultant Frank Luntz soon urged Republicans to stress quality-of-care concerns. Obama and team remained tone deaf. Three years later, the same Times-CBS poll showed only one in five Americans thought the ACA would help them personally. A full third expected their quality of care to worsen, and just 17 percent expected it would get better.

In fact, though the individual mandate to buy insurance has received the most attention, the ACA is filled with provisions to improve care quality and individuals' care. But for many middle-class voters, the answer to, "What's in health reform for me?" was allowed to become, "Nothing good."

The Caricatured Crusader. When GOP leaders decided to just say no to Obamacare, they were honest about their political calculus. The polarization worked.

The number of Republicans saying reform would make their lives "worse off" started at only 22 percent in early 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) tracking poll, before jumping to 61 percent that summer. Just 11 percent of the critical independents began by thinking that health care reform would make them worse off, but that percentage more than tripled by summer to 36 percent.

In early 2010, the White House posted a list detailing which proposals by which Republicans had echoes in the ACA. That the mandate had originated in the conservative Heritage Foundation was nowhere to be found. Nor did the White House note that the GOP's 2008 presidential platform had called for coordinated care and other changes almost identical to ACA provisions. In the event, none of this information was used to respond to the GOP attacks that helped sweep out Democratic candidates in the 2010 election tsunami.

It was only this past March that the administration, acting as if the Supreme Court's ACA hearing was a political pep rally, sprang into action. It activated supporters, talked up the ACA's Republican roots and rolled out press releases touting the law's benefits for average Americans. It was too little, too late.

A 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine concluded that the consequences of a lack of access to medical care include "needless illness, suffering, and even death," with the victims frequently being children. Yet health reform's opponents have managed to switch the discussion from dead kids to the Constitution's commerce clause. All the while, Barack Obama has flailed and failed to convince the American people that "Obamacare" is change they can believe in.