Bloomberg News

Obama Touts Health-Care Law Before Donors While Mum With Voters

November 30, 2011

(For more campaign news, go to ELECT.)

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is using passage of the health-care law to help him get re-elected. He’s just not making the sales pitch in public.

Asked at a Nov. 13 press conference in Kapolei, Hawaii, about whether he was concerned about facing voters without passage of his $447 billion jobs package, an unemployment rate of 9 percent, and voters “wondering about your leadership?,” the president didn’t tout his biggest domestic policy achievement. Instead, he pledged “to just keep on chipping away” at getting parts of the jobs bill passed.

The next morning at a 250-person fundraiser at a Walt Disney Co. resort on the island, Obama spent more than 30 minutes ticking off his accomplishments, including the health- care overhaul, signed into law in March of last year.

“We’ve already started to see what change looks like,” he told the donors who spent at least $1,000 apiece to attend. “Change is the one million young Americans who are already receiving insurance that weren’t getting it before.”

Since July, the president has refrained at six news conferences from discussing the health-care measure that became a major issue in the 2010 midterm elections in which the Democrats lost control of the House.

‘Healthy Instinct’

“Right now the White House has made the decision that jobs are the focus,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian. “It’s probably a healthy instinct to realize that, right now, the public would rather hear about what he hopes to do to help them in the present and the future than what has been accomplished in the past.”

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, had a more direct assessment of the White House objectives: “He’s giving his donors red meat,” he said. “Health care’s not a winner for him, it’s off message” for the larger public.

Republicans vying to challenge Obama in next year’s election rarely miss an opportunity to talk about the issue.

Mitt Romney, who enacted a similar health-care law when he was governor of Massachusetts, yesterday in his first advertisement of the campaign vowed to “get rid of ‘Obamacare’” because “it’s killing jobs.” Texas Governor Rick Perry routinely links “Obamacare” with “Romneycare.”

“Like pit bulls, the Republicans have sunk their teeth into the health-care issue and will drag the president into it,” said Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, who pushed for the president’s health-care bill.

Public Opinion Dips

Obama’s job ratings on health-care policy have gone down in recent months, according to a Nov. 11-13 CNN/ORC poll. The poll found that 38 percent of respondents approve of the way he is handling health care-policy compared with 59 percent who disapprove. That’s down from a Jan. 21-23 CNN survey, when 44 percent approved and 55 percent disapproved.

The Supreme Court announced on Nov. 14 they will rule on the constitutionality of the health-care overhaul, considering arguments in March on whether Congress exceeded its authority by requiring all Americans to either acquire insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. That sets up a showdown during the 2012 election season that means Obama eventually will have to defend the legislation.

“I don’t think he’s going to run away from it, but I think he’s aware that we’re having a debate about a bill that hasn’t even been fully implemented,” said Stern.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan wouldn’t comment on the president’s approach to the health-care law as he seeks re- election. The White House also declined to comment.

Johnson, Reagan, Bush

The president’s political strategy differs from the course taken by some of his predecessors. Former President Lyndon Johnson touted passage of his Great Society legislation, which included establishing Medicare, former President Ronald Reagan trumpeted his tax cuts, and President George W. Bush framed the 2004 re-election campaign around national security.

Obama’s deviation from the norm is understandable, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Houston’s Rice University.

“We’re living in the age of Reagan still when people are suspicious of the federal government and so, when you get government accomplishments, you keep them under wraps,” he said in an interview.

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Jeff Shesol, a former speech writer for President Bill Clinton, said Obama’s putting to best use the new health-care law and repeal of the Pentagon policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which prevented homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

“Donors will stand up and cheer the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ repeal, but when he goes into, say, the Midwest to promote his jobs bill at a big rally, he’s not necessarily going to talk about repeal,” said Shesol.

Obama, 50, has attended 62 fundraisers -- which have included an 800-person gathering in Seattle on Sept. 25 where ticket prices started at $100 and an Oct. 4 dinner in St. Louis with about 45 people who paid at least $25,000 -- since filing for re-election in April. He’s exceeded his record fundraising pace of four years ago, raising $88 million through Sept. 30, up from $80 million in the same period in 2007.

Obama’s ‘Checklist’

He often tells donors that he’s gotten about 60 percent of his “checklist” accomplished, initiatives that have the support of the Democratic Party base and mixed reviews from independent voters. At 34 percent of the electorate, independents are tied with the number of registered Democrats and exceed registered Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

John Aravosis, a 2008 Obama supporter and founder of the AMERICAblog website, said the president should highlight health care and repeal of the Pentagon rules at every opportunity, “Why not just own it?”

For now, the president is opting for partial ownership.

At a Nov. 7 Washington fundraiser Obama told about 45 guests who paid at least $17,900 each, “We were able to pass health-insurance reform, Wall Street reform, end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ end the war in Iraq --the list goes on.”

Earlier that same day in the White House Rose Garden, he took credit for winding down of the war but remained silent on the other issues in remarks focused on tax credits for veterans.

‘People Forget’

Obama was enthusiastic about his record during Oct. 24 remarks at the Spanish-style, Los Angeles home of actor Will Smith’s producing partner. He told the 40 guests who paid the maximum $35,800 per ticket, including Smith, his actress wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and former Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson: “Sometimes I think people forget how much has gotten done.”

At a public event earlier in the day, he didn’t remind listeners about any of those issues, talking instead about an initiative to make home refinancing easier.

At another Los Angeles fundraiser later that night at the home of actors Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, the guests listened as Obama praised the health-care law, which he said would provide coverage “for 30 million Americans who didn’t have it,” his decision to end the war in Iraq, and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Obama offered insight into the White House’s sensitivity to the messages he delivers to different audiences at an Aug. 11 fundraiser at film studio chairman Harvey Weinstein’s West Village townhouse in New York City, where the attendees included actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

The U.S. is “a big, diverse country and not everybody agrees with me; not everybody agrees with the folks who live in Manhattan. West of here. You guys may not be familiar with it.”

--With assistance from Jonathan D. Salant, Julianna Goldman and Greg Giroux in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Don Frederick

To contact the reporters on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Washington at kandersen7@bloomberg.net; Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net


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