WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House is facing uncomfortable questions about its strategy for selling President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul to Americans, after a series of opinion polls showed eroding support for it.
Despite Obama’s daily appearances over the past few weeks, — delivering speeches, giving media interviews and holding town-hall style meetings across the country — Americans appear more skeptical and confused than before.
On the surface, it appears the more Obama has talked, seeking to explain and win over doubters about his $1 trillion plan to improve care, rein in costs and cover 46 million uninsured Americans, the worse his poll numbers have become.
The White House would challenge that as misleading, given that one of the polls, by The New York Times and CBS News, showed 55 percent of respondents believed Obama had better ideas about how to change healthcare than Republicans did.
But the overall poll results are bad news for a White House with a reputation for getting its message across and for a president who has made healthcare reform his signature issue, the success or failure of which may define the rest of his presidency.
Democratic lawmakers and party strategists expect the White House to refine its message in the coming days and weeks to keep the momentum going as Congress, which has still to decide on the shape of the healthcare overhaul, prepares to break for August without voting on any of the proposals before it.
“I think President Obama has had the same problem we have had, in that you have had, and continue to have, a discussion about a lot of different alternatives,” acknowledged Steny Hoyer, a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives.
“Because you had so many different alternatives being discussed, it was difficult for the president to say, ‘Look this is what we want to do,’” Hoyer said.
The New York Times/CBS News poll showed 69 percent of Americans were concerned their care would suffer if they were on a government-run plan. Obama favors a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 42 percent of those surveyed in July thought Obama’s healthcare plan was a bad idea, up from 32 percent in June.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president was not preoccupied with the ups and downs of polls.
Asked whether the White House planned to refine its sales pitch, Gibbs’ deputy, Bill Burton, said he was not “inclined to engage in questions like these of process and strategy.”
Republican Party strategist Alex Conant said, “The White House has had a flawed strategy from the start in letting congressional Democrats write the legislation instead of showing presidential leadership and writing a specific plan.”
‘FINE-TUNE THEIR MESSAGE’
“It appears his speechwriters have got ahead of the policy writers. His speeches make these grand promises, but the policy-makers haven’t figured out how to achieve all the goals he set forward,” Conant said.
But former Democratic strategist Jeff Eller, who worked on President Bill Clinton’s failed healthcare reform drive in the 1990s, cautioned against Obama spelling out too many details, saying that helped sink the Clinton health plan.
There is also an argument that Obama has been focusing too narrowly on people who do not have insurance rather than the majority of middle-class Americans who do and who worry they will end up having to pay for the overhaul.
“They need to fine-tune their message for the audience that really matters, and the people who are going to be talking to their members of Congress (during August recess) are going to be the people who have health insurance,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Obama has sounded increasingly bemused as he seeks to reassure people expressing misgivings about his plan, answering the same questions again and again at town-hall meetings.
Dan Amundson, research director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, said Obama’s message was not reaching a wide enough audience. Media coverage of the events tended to focus more on strategy than the substance of what he was saying.
There should have been more prime-time national televised appearances, like the healthcare town-hall Obama held at the White House, and news conferences, Amundson said, noting most Americans still got their news from television.
“I don’t think they’re losing the message war. What they are losing are people who liked the idea who are turning a little more skeptical, a little more cautious,” he said.
“He has to continue going out. He has to tailor his message to tell people more about how it is going to affect them individually ... and allay people’s fears.”
One woman from Iowa, however, has had enough. Deloris Nissen advertised her television set for sale in a local newspaper. The reason: “Obama on every channel and station.”
Additional reporting by Jackie Frank; Editing by Peter Cooney