Saturday, April 03, 2010

The US health care battle: The Sequel

BOSTON, Massachusetts — President Barack Obama and his Republican foes are plunging anew into toxic health care politics, in a fresh struggle to dictate public opinion seven months before congressional elections.

Obama signed the historic new health law a week ago, but he is selling the reforms to voters as vigorously as ever, almost like someone who sold a house but keeps returning to tell the new owner what a good deal he got.

Republicans meanwhile are beginning to cast their health care attack as an economic argument, after failing to thwart Obama's top domestic priority, arguing the new law will kill jobs amid high unemployment.

Obama's countrywide sales pitch landed in the northeastern state of Maine on Thursday, where his health care triumph stirred young supporters captivated by his change crusade but whipped grass roots conservatives into a frenzy.

Feisty and energized, Obama stressed aspects of the reform which will come into force quickly, and may prove to be popular.

He says students will be able to stay on their parents' insurance until their mid 20s, notes children will soon no longer be denied coverage if they are already sick, and points out tax breaks for hard-pressed small businesses.

First-term presidents traditionally fare badly in mid-term congressional elections, and Democrats fear heavy losses in November.

"Mid terms are tough ... but we are going to surprise a lot of people," said Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday.

Though polls show America split on the health law, Obama hopes to win voters over by November, and leave Republicans on the wrong side of the issue.

"My attitude is go for it, you try and repeal it," Obama said.

"I want these members to come out of Congress and say 'you know what we are going to take away your tax credits, essentially raise your taxes.'"

Later, at a Democratic fundraiser in Boston, Obama mocked Republicans, and a favorite target -- political pundits -- who said the year-long battle on health care would be his downfall.

"Well, it turns out health reform wasn't my Waterloo," he said of a new law which will approach universal health coverage in America for the first time.

But angry anti-Obama demonstrators outside the rally hinted at political divides over health care. Several men held up banners reading "Repeal and Replace Obama."

The president admitted later: "This country is still divided."

Obama's deputy spokesman Bill Burton said the president was determined to debunk what the White House sees as Republican misinformation over the law.

"Nobody thought that overnight the bill would get passed and suddenly people would understand all the benefits," Burton said.

Obama is also repaying political debts to Democratic lawmakers who cast tough votes on health care despite an angry public mood.

When a woman yelled out "Thank You" at his health care rally in Portland, the president gave a shout out to Maine's two Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

"Thank Chellie and Mike, they voted for it," Obama said, referring to local lawmakers Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud.

The Republican message on health care is also evolving: leading party figures, among them Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, are beginning to refer to the new law as the "health spending bill."

"America?s job creators, already struggling in a down economy, didn't ask for the mandates, red tape and new taxes they'll have to shoulder as a result of the health spending bill," McConnell said Thursday.

Republicans seek to make Democrats, as the party in power, pay the price for high unemployment and an uncertain return to growth, in November.

Basing their attack on economics may also help them, should health care on its own be a less potent issue by the time polling day comes around.

"At the end of the day, I think the Republicans may be disappointed as to the extent that the health care issue is a driver of things in November," said Christian Potholm, professor of political science at Bowdoin College, Maine.

History may eventually applaud Obama for passing health care reform, but so far he seems to have garnered little political benefit.

A Washington Post poll late last month found that 48 percent of respondents backed Obama's handling of health care while 49 percent disapprove, reflecting a country split down the middle despite Obama's vow to heal political divides.

But the president snapped back at the pundits and pollsters on Thursday, with the words "It's only been a week!"

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