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Why Obama Can't Brush Off Health Care Protests

Protesters argue their positions on health care outside of President Obama's town hall meeting on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H.
Robert Spencer
Getty Images
Protesters argue their positions on health care outside of President Obama's town hall meeting on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H.

A hint of the gathering storm came more than two weeks ago, when a polite older woman named Mary called into an AARP-sponsored health care "tele-town hall" with a question for President Obama.

"I have been told," Mary said, that under a new health care plan, Medicare recipients would "be visited and told to decide how they wish to die."

That prompted a grin from the president and, initially, a flip response. "I guarantee you, first of all," Obama said, "we just don't have enough government workers to send to talk to everybody to find out how they want to die."

That blithe treatment of Mary's fear, however baseless, suggested that the White House underestimated the level of anxiety its health care overhaul initiative has caused, and the opportunity it has presented for opponents to promote fear-mongering rumors.

The latest debunked rumors range from outrageous claims of government-sanctioned euthanasia to federally mandated abortions. But dismissing the protesters as isolated, non-representative collections of cranks and, perhaps, racists, would be a strategic blunder for the White House.

Fears Spur Ugly Encounters

And there are signs that the White House is now taking the protesters seriously.

There is a general fear that the American dream is not going to be there for them or their children. There is concern about trust broken between government and the people.

After a week of wall-to-wall media coverage of Democratic members of Congress being harangued by constituents at sometimes ugly, and occasionally violent, town hall meetings, the president held his own televised forum Tuesday in New Hampshire to beat back lies and "boogeyman," he said, and take on those who want to "scare and mislead the American people."

He has another town hall scheduled Friday in Montana, and another Saturday in Colorado.

During his press briefing Wednesday, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs downplayed the protests. "I doubt we're seeing anything that's representative of town hall meetings, despite the food fight" being shown on cable news, he said.

But the raucous protesters outside Obama's New Hampshire event point to the broader challenges that face the White House as it seeks to overhaul health care: a creeping skepticism among older, and disproportionately white, voters that the government is on their side and tepid enthusiasm among many liberal, grassroots activists.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and California-based pollster who routinely conducts swing-voter focus groups, says the vocally disaffected represent a very real phenomenon that has been rising around the country since before Obama's election. It is growing in the face of a damaged economy, a series of bank and Wall Street bailouts, and big-dollar government programs to stimulate jobs and stave off foreclosures.

"I've never seen as angry an electorate as this one," says Lehane. "They're as scared as I've ever seen them, and that manifests into anger."

"There is a general fear that the American dream is not going to be there for them or their children," he said. "There is concern about trust broken between government and the people."

The Passion Is With The Protesters

A growing problem for the White House, strategists say, is that passion now resides on the side of health care overhaul opponents.

There is the public manifestation of that passion, and the private. A new Gallup Poll shows that nearly half of those surveyed said they disapprove of the way Obama is handling health care policy; 43 percent said they approve. And Wednesday, the federal deficit hit a record $1.27 trillion.

Tony Perkins, who heads the conservative Christian Family Research Council, sees the protests as a continuation of the anti-tax "tea parties" of earlier this year, and a healthy expression of dissatisfaction.

"People are upset," says Perkins. "And I'm encouraged that we've not become so numb to big government that there are people actually pushing back in large numbers."

"This is real," he said, echoing Lehane. "The president and Congress explain it away at their own peril."

The Family Research Council has aired an advertisement that asserted that Obama's health care initiative would contain provisions for the use of taxpayer money to subsidize abortions, a claim made by a number of conservatives — including House Minority Leader John Boehner. The claim has been among those deemed false by the fact-check Web site, which has been closely monitoring the veracity of assertions made by those on both sides of the health care debate.

Administration officials face a conundrum: In trying to attract the support of moderates in the party, as well as win union and industry support, they have agreed to or are contemplating compromises that discourage their own grassroots supporters. Universal health care has gone by the wayside, and there is serious discussion about dropping a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers.

A CNN poll released last week had both good news and bad for the administration. Seven out of 10 people surveyed said they believe that "major structural changes" are needed to reduce health care costs or provide insurance coverage to all Americans. But only three in 10 say they think that Obama's initiative will result in help for their own families.

Passion is diminished on the left, Democratic strategists say, while change opponents — no matter their number — are on fire.

"You have to compromise in politics, where perfect is the enemy of the good," Lehane says. "But is the good good enough?"

More Pushback Needed

No one disagrees that a major health care overhaul is a complex undertaking — one easily sidetracked by debates over issues not at the heart of change. Momentum can be lost and simple messages difficult to hang on to when faced with the onslaught of interest group cage-rattling.

The president is slated to get some big-money help to make his case for health care reform. Politico reported Thursday morning that a coalition largely funded by the pharmaceutical industry plans to launch a $12 million advertising campaign to support Obama's health care initiative.

The White House has been seeking to refocus discussion on the "80 percent" of issues on which there is agreement on both sides of the aisle — from barring insurance companies from denying health coverage to those with preexisting conditions, to limiting out-of-pocket health care expenses.

That could work, strategists say, but the president also has to do a better job defusing, in simple, straightforward and respectful language, the largely trumped-up fears of government intrusion and control from conception to death.

Democrats in Congress can still get a good bill done, Lehane predicts, because the "raw numbers favor them and [the] leadership wants to get something done."

But they, and the president, have to work through August with a clearer, more muscular pushback of roundly debunked rumors, and a healthy respect of the real fears out there.

And assuring town hall participants that we "won't pull the plug on Grandma," as Obama did Tuesday, might not be quite the right tone to take.

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