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Obama courts health plan skeptics tonight

To address public’s fears during news conference

President Obama talked about healthcare reform at the White House yesterday. Recent polls indicated diminished support for the president’s handling of both the economy and healthcare. President Obama talked about healthcare reform at the White House yesterday. Recent polls indicated diminished support for the president’s handling of both the economy and healthcare. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / July 22, 2009

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WASHINGTON - After weeks of bad news about costs, the defection of moderate Democrats, and a negative drumbeat from Republicans, President Obama will use a televised news conference tonight in a bid to shore up public support for his sweeping plan to cover the uninsured and reform the healthcare system.

The president’s allies in Congress, who are on the verge of missing a self-imposed summer deadline for passing reform, say they hope Obama will do a better job of selling his vision to an increasingly skeptical public. They want Obama to reassure the nation that the healthcare legislation will save families money, not cost them higher taxes, and that it will improve the nation’s long-term economic outlook rather than add to mounting deficits.

“With all the misinformation and all the challenges of competing ads and the talking heads, people are traumatized,’’ said Senator Ben Nel son of Nebraska. “They want to make sure, at the end of the day, whatever we do doesn’t make things worse.’’

The political difficulty Obama and his party face is similar to the last time a major healthcare overhaul was tried, in 1993 and 1994. Then, as now, a majority of Americans already had health insurance, and they were more interested in having their costs reduced than they were in extending coverage to the uninsured, the legislation’s most widely understood goal. Fast forward to 2009: Middle-class sentiment is similar, and voters again fear getting stuck with the $1 trillion tab.

Those fears are compounded by rising unemployment, escalating federal deficits, and healthcare inflation that is devouring workers’ wages. Last week Doug Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, warned that the legislation now under consideration in the House would not lower healthcare costs over the long term.

Recent polls show diminished support for the president’s handling of both the economy and healthcare, and little confidence among voters that the healthcare bill will help them personally.

“The top issue for Americans is the economy, and skepticism is growing on his stimulus recovery package,’’ said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University. “I believe that is undermining his ability to convince people that if you did another major reform, ‘Trust me, it will work out OK.’ ’’

Democrats argue that expanding coverage would be good for the economy, a theme they hope the president will emphasize tonight.

“He should say that our country’s ongoing economic problems are not an argument for inaction, but a reason for fixing a broken healthcare system now,’’ said Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is in the midst of negotiating details of the House bill.

Republican leaders are doing their best to stoke fears about the costs, keenly aware that after President Clinton lost his healthcare fight in 1994, the GOP made enormous gains in the midterm elections and regained control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

The sound of Democrats arguing among themselves over whether to pay for the expansion of health coverage with a surtax on the wealthy or a tax on health benefits is music to Republican ears.

“Republicans have typically done far better when they could campaign as the fiscally conservative party, and that’s been difficult in the last few cycles’’ under former president George W. Bush, said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster and consultant. “Democrats are basically making that argument for them at this point.’’

Anne Kim, a former deputy chief of staff to Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a moderate “Blue Dog’’ Democrat who has long focused on healthcare, said the White House allowed the message to be “hijacked’’ by others and that tonight’s news conference was “very important’’ in reclaiming it.

“He’s got to hit a home run to make his case and set the message course back on track,’’ said Kim, now the economic director of Third Way, a think tank that works on developing moderate Democratic policy, strategy, and messaging. “We have long believed that there’s one question that is going to determine the quality of healthcare reform, and that question is whether the middle class can articulate what is in it for them.’’

Kim said Obama must persuade middle-class voters the healthcare proposals in Congress would be the biggest boon for the middle class since Medicare was passed in 1965. It would give Americans a way to buy affordable coverage if they become unemployed, she said, relieving middle-class families of a persistent worry. Despite the Congressional Budget Office’s concerns about the House bill, the final legislation - after being tempered by moderates - would also make strides toward taming healthcare costs, Kim said. And the bill would work on improving the quality of care, which now varies hugely across the country.

But Blendon said Obama will probably have trouble doing that until Congress passes a single plan. Obama has already made a broad case for healthcare reform in numerous well-received speeches and town hall-style forums, he said: What the public is waiting for now is the fine print.

“I think we’ve entered a more pragmatic stage where people are judging this not as a national problem but on how it will affect families across the country,’’ he said.

Then again, if the public is not agitating for swift action, then Congress has less motivation to finish its work. But Markey, who was up past midnight working on the proposal yesterday, said he feels confident Democrats will get it done. “People want to find a way of solving it,’’ he said.