Democratic Pollster: White House Needs To Go ‘Back To Basics’ To Sell Health Law

The Obama administration and supporters of the health care overhaul staged dozens of events this week aimed at shoring up lagging public support for the new law as the midterm elections approach. Will they be successful? Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster and chairman of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a survey research firm in Washington, told KHN reporter Jenny Gold he doesn’t expect a sea change in public opinion in coming weeks. Democrats, he says, might want to avoid discussing the health care law in their campaigns. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:

Given the ballyhoo about the six month anniversary of the health care law, do you think President Barack Obama will succeed in making it more popular?

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Let’s start by understanding that this was a tremendously contentious fight, and it was born in a political period, and it’s still living in a political period. Overall, I think the public is starting to accept it. Over a long period of time, of course it’s going to be accepted and it’s going to become popular. But at this stage, any change is difficult and change during a recession is exceedingly difficult. I don’t think this is a six-month process. I think this is more a two-year, four-year, six-year process.

Does the White House need to change its message/strategy on health care?

Yes. I think the difficulty is that the White House has not really had a single strategy or good strategy. I think there was, sort of, the expectation in the White House that the day they signed the bill that everybody would come on board. And I think what they need to do is essentially go back to what I would say are the basics. ‘Here’s what the bill’s about. Here’s why it makes a difference. Here’s why it’s good for you and it’s good for America.’

Polls show that individual provisions are popular but the overall bill is not. How do you explain that?

The reason the overall bill is less popular than the elements is that it is like so many pieces of legislation. You only need to find the one link to be able to cut a hole there and the chain fence essentially unravels. And I think that’s in part what’s happened with this.

I think overall the public doesn’t know, doesn’t understand it enough and has fear in terms of ‘what it means for me.’
And what we see here is a great division. And the division, not surprisingly, breaks along the lines of ‘I like Obama’ or ‘I don’t like Obama.’

Republicans seem to have dominated the conversation on health care by talking about big government and threats to Medicare. Are they winning the messaging war?

Yes. This reminds me of the Panama Canal treaty in the late ’70s. The Carter administration passed this landmark achievement. And yet in both the 1978 and 1980 elections, the Republicans were able to take advantage of it and make people fearful and uncertain and ‘here’s what it means in terms of America’s pride and America’s strength.’ What happened [was] at that stage of the game, more incumbents were defeated on their Panama Canal vote than were elected. If you were around in 1977-1978 and 1980, you would have thought this was the end of the modern world as we knew it. [You] couldn’t get 10 people in America to mention it now.

Are there races where this one issue will change the outcome?

I have no doubt that that will be the case, but I just don’t know which ones. There’s a reason Republicans are running on this. They are playing to their base and that helps them. Against that, independents are more likely to side with the Republicans on this than the Democrats.

What do you think Obama and the Democrats have to do between now and 2012, and then 2014 when provisions kick in, to sell the bill to the public?

I think what this comes down to is that Democrats need to go back to the basics. And the basics are selling the elements that makes sense. Persuading the public that the worst thing we could do is go into reverse and scrap or eliminate health care reform. In our recent poll, 24 percent say health care reform has made things better. Thirty-five percent say it’s made things worse. Those are mainly Republicans and conservatives. But 36 percent say it’s too soon to tell, and that’s the group that the president has to address.

In March when Obama signed this bill to great fanfare, did you think it was going to be a boon to Democrats at the time? Are you surprised by what’s happened?

I did think it was going to be a boon to Democrats. I thought it was good and it showed a substantial accomplishment. And I’ve been surprised because I thought that, after the vote, the public would tend to come around and say ‘this is something we can live with.’ I think one of the problems is there are a lot of people who don’t want change. And change is scary, it’s frightening. And this is a big change.

Should Democratic candidates downplay health care or [should they] really be talking about this?

I would opt for avoiding the subject rather than wading into the subject. I think the biggest difficulty here is not the question of what’s in the bill, it’s the perception of what people think this bill would do.