POLITICS
08/20/2010 02:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care Advocates Deny They've Lost The Messaging War

Key White House allies are pushing back against a report that they've abandoned their initial efforts to sell health care reform and are instead trying to win over voters by promising to "improve" the legislation.

Advocates acknowledged to the Huffington Post on Friday that they're proposing a shift in how to sell health care reform to skeptical voters. Instead of emphasizing how the legislation will reduce costs and lower the deficit, a PowerPoint presentation put together by the pro-reform Families USA recommends that lawmakers focus on personal stories and the impact the bill will have on small businesses.

The advice, which was culled from data presented by a trio of prominent Democratic pollsters and leaked to Politico, is a tactical recalibration in messaging. But those behind the study stress that it is neither an acknowledgment of the bill's rejection by the public nor a dramatic change in focus. Rather, it was a reflection of trends that the administration and others have long anticipated and recognized.

"For the last few months the White House has not been taking about costs and deficits, they have been talking about small business and everything else. They have been doing the personal story thing," said Bob Crittenden, the executive director of the Herndon Alliance which presented the Families USA study during a phone briefing on Thursday.

"Politico's point on this was that this is a big change. Well, first of all, the White House made this assessment months ago that trying to convince people it will save money is a heavy lift. They were ahead of the other people... Our point was the same. It's not that health care is bad to talk about. If you talk about how it affects them in a personal way with a story, they do support it."

From the 24-page memo, there is evidence to support Crittenden's claim. The text argues that the "public can be moved from initial skepticism and support for repeal of the law to a favorable feeling and resisting repeal" through a number of methods. The use of personal stories, the authors write, is import "to convey critical benefits of reform." As is letting the public know that members of Congress "will participate in the same plan" and avoiding "overheated political rhetoric."

But it's tough to gloss over the other dramatic messaging suggestions in the text. For instance, the memo argues in several places that those talking about health care reform should remind voters that it actually is law (as sure a sign as any that the public hasn't taken to the legislation). And as Politico reported:

The presentation also concedes that the fiscal and economic arguments that were the White House's first and most aggressive sales pitch have essentially failed.

"Many don't believe health care reform will help the economy," says one slide.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Crittenden conceded that the public isn't being persuaded by claims about health care reform's overall impact on the economy. But he also noted that that was long considered an inside-the-Beltway pitch, one that was bound to be replaced by more individual, targeted efforts to sell the bill.

"The cost of doing nothing was a powerful argument about a year ago," Crittenden told the Huffington Post. "We thought the best thing to do now was to remind people why they personally wanted reform in the first place."