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Is Obama Losing The Health Communications Battle?

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|Six months after being swept into office on the crest of a popular wave of change, Barack Obama seems to have hit his first snag. Polls are showing that more Americans have doubts about his health care reform plans now than they did several months ago. Obama is not entirely to blame for that – select committees in the House of Representatives hammered out no fewer than three different proposals –  but it is up to Obama to keep the voters aboard. Especially in the so-called Blue Dog states.

|Obama is juggling several policy balls at once, and it must be driving his communications department mad. Either way, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of getting more people aboard their bandwagon. On the contrary, doubts are seeping in.

There is a worrying trendline in recent polls, as can be seen in this collection of recent polls, gathered by the good folks at Pollster.com:

questions

The bold digits in the column on the right shows that fewer people seem to support current plans for health care reform. Before we go on, rest assured: a majority of the US public still wants health care reform. But the aggregate above and other polls of the past month seem to reflect growing unease among questioned voters.

There’s too much confusion
So, if they support health care reform, then what is going on? One problem: confusion. Several committees in the House of Representatives drew up differing proposals. There are several grand schemes out there at the moment, and they seem to be somewhat dazzling ordinary news media consumers. That’s not their fault; the plans are confusing, and that’s not surprising when the draft proposals themselves are 1200 pages in size – each. Even seasoned journalists are having a hard time keeping tabs on what’s what.

Another problem seems to be Obama’s political saviness. Instead of using a top-down approach, like Bill and Hillary Clinton did in 1993-’94 and thus imposing his plan on Congress, Obama has decided to use a bottom-up approach: he’s allowing his Democratic friends and foes in Congress to clash over several proposals at once. The idea is that the Democrats will agree on a compromise, which Obama can then carbon-copy. That way, when push comes to shove at the end of this year, Congress will back the reform plan all the way. Why is this a problem? Because it allows for the confusion mentioned earlier – and thus an opening for the enemies of health care reform to try to change the narrative.

But the thing is: the Republicans aren’t really being listened to by the mainstream voters, and the health insurance lobby hasn’t even started fighting the plans yet – the lobby is waiting to see what the final plan will be. Instead, the voters’ doubts are being fed by crummy communications coming from the Democrats and the White House.

Because even though, as said, the Republicans are hardly being taken seriously by most voters, the Republicans are succeeding in one thing: pinning everything ‘bad’ about health care on the White House. Everytime the Blue Dog Democrats raise an objection to a reform proposal, Republicans seize on it by wrapping it around a brick and throwing it at the White House. That way, they’re trying to paint Obama as indecisive, and his policies confusing.

But voters don’t need Republicans to remind them of the complexity of the reform proposals. So far, the Obama administration has been trying to allay two fears among voters, them being:

  1. That the quality of their existing health insurance would deteriorate
  2. That the federal deficit would balloon.

Unfortunately, Team Obama – which includes his PR-department – has not succeeded in its effort. Instead of those fears diminishing, more people have actually started to fret.

It’s the Senate, stupid!
On another front, popular support for the current system (if you can call it that) is growing and solidifying, according to this poll. Yes, it’s Rasmussen which always has a slant to the right, but the development was to be expected: as the debate intensifies, more people turn to the subject of health care and start forming their opinions. As more people take a stance on their convictions, polls like these are likely to show a more crystallizing support for the current system, especially among those people who currently have affordable health insurance.

Team Obama will tell you that all this is no surprise, that they actually saw this coming, etcetera. Of course they’ll say that; downplaying is their job. But it is more than a safe bet that the numbers are actually worrying them.

Why? Because they may embolden first-term Blue Dog Democrats to suddenly turn against health care reform. These Democrats hail from states where the majority of voters usually votes for Republicans. Many of those voters were turned off by the deficit spending of George W. Bush, “one of their own”, and so many Republican voters stayed at home, allowing Democrats, independents and some angry Republicans to vote into office conservative Democrats – DINOs, “Democrats In Name Only”, the Democratic version of the reviled RINOs, “Republicans In Name Only”.

If  the idea takes hold among those voters that Obama’s final plan will indeed increase the federal deficit, even for a short period (as is expected), it will become very hard for Team Obama to convince the DINOs to vote in favour of his plan.

Whatever that may turn out to be – with a public option or without, covering all Americans or leaving out a few, a cooperative plan or not – one thing is sure: momentum is not on Team Obama’s side on this one. He’d better shift back into campaign mode and go on the stump.