Embracing Obamacare

Tuesday , April 03, 2012 - 4:28 PM

Dick Polman

An amazing moment occurred the other day on the two-year anniversary of the health-reform law that has long been burdened by the pejorative term Obamacare. The president's campaign advisers essentially said, We're going to own that term and spin it as a positive.

So they emailed their supporters: "It's about time we give it the love that it deserves. Let everyone know, 'I like Obamacare.'" And President Obama himself doubled down during a fund-raiser: "You want to call it Obamacare -- that's OK, because I do care."

Team Obama's bid to own the term (which was coined by conservative critics as a synonym for socialist overreach) is just one facet of its broader plan to trumpet the health reform law as a reelection asset. No matter what the polls say. No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court may or may not do.

The official Obama campaign video devotes more time to the law than to any other issue. Meanwhile, every day, the administration is highlighting a citizen helped by the law (for instance, a Tampa nurse who got insurance for her son because the law bars insurers from denying coverage to kids with birth defects). And it's peppering swing states with pertinent statistics: "As of June 2011, 64,798 young adults in Pennsylvania gained insurance coverage as a result of the new health law" -- thanks to the provision that allows parents to cover their kids up to age 26 when the offspring lack coverage of their own.

There are three reasons why Obama and his people have opted to own what has long been assumed to be a political albatross: (1) they're confident about their re-election prospects, which have been buoyed by a slowly improving economy; (2) they know that likely challenger Mitt Romney is ill-equipped to bang them on Obamacare, because, as governor, he was the one who championed Obamacare's antecedent; and (3) they frankly had no choice but to embrace the health law and make a virtue out of a necessity. Because if they didn't frame the dialogue their way, the GOP would fill the vacuum.

OK. By now you may be asking, "But what about the Supreme Court? If it overturns Obama's signature domestic achievement, particularly the key 'mandate' provision requiring Americans to buy coverage, wouldn't that ruling be a huge political victory for the Republicans?"

Not necessarily.

If the five Republican appointees strike down the law -- ignoring the obvious fact that health care is interstate commerce, and ignoring previous court decisions upholding the regulation of interstate commerce, even the amount of wheat farmers can grow for personal use -- two things will happen in the political realm:

The Republicans would lose the rhetorical weapon they have wielded since the summer of 2009. Politicians like Rick Santorum will no longer be able to summon the conservative base with war cries about "the death knell of freedom." And GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, no longer able to demand that health reform be "repealed and replaced," would be under pressure to actually tackle the challenge of covering the uninsured and fixing the abiding inequities of the Western world's most dysfunctional health system. (Which, for decades, they generally have been loathe to do.)

In other words, "Be careful what you wish for."

Meanwhile, if the high court says no to health reform, Democrats would gain a powerful rhetorical weapon, one that would help them energize the liberal base. And they'd say to swing voters: "Obama gave you a historic reform law that barred insurers from capping your health coverage, that barred insurers from denying coverage to kids with preexisting conditions, that kept adult kids on the family coverage, and that gave financial help to many seniors who get the Medicare prescription drug benefit. But now this law has been taken away from you."

The motivated voter is often an angry voter. And nothing makes a voter angrier than losing something that betters daily life.

Women, in particular, are sensitive about the health issue. Between the ages of 30 and 55, they're usually the prime caregivers for children and parents; in the recent words of Republican pollster Bill McInturff, "they're more engaged and active in the health care system" than the other gender. And they'd lose a lot if the health-reform law goes away -- including the provision that bars insurers from dropping women when they get pregnant, the provision that bars insurers from charging them higher premiums than men, and the provision that requires insurers to cover mammograms and contraception without charging co-payments.

Women voters would be open to the Democratic argument, if only because they're heavily tilting to the Democrats already. The newly-released poll conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows Obama topping Romney among women by a whopping 20 percentage points (and among all voters by 12) -- a gender gap that even dwarfs Obama's hefty '08 advantage over John McCain. And, remember, women traditionally vote more heavily than men in presidential years; last time, they were 53 percent of the electorate.

Romney is losing women for a number of reasons -- in his defense, he's probably taking collateral damage for the GOP's state-by-state efforts to enact laws meddling in women's private lives -- but this shorthand is surely a contributing factor: Obama favors health reform, while Romney keeps vowing "on day one" to repeal it "root and branch." This, despite his own track record of signing similar health-reform legislation in Massachusetts.

Imagine what might happen this autumn. Assume, for the moment, that the high court upholds health reform (still a possibility). The GOP would still have its issue, and Romney would vow anew to repeal the law -- whereupon Obama would seize the opening, and paint Romney as a guy whose convictions are as ephemeral as an Etch a Sketch image.

Obama would point out that Romneycare was the template for Obamacare. And what fun it would be, at the debates, if Obama quoted the old Romney, the gubernatorial guy who said that the health-coverage mandate is "a Republican way of reforming the market." What better way for Obama to convince women of Romney's hypocrisy -- and depress conservative turnout in November?

So no wonder Obama wants to own Obamacare. He has ample messaging options. Regardless of whether the health law is dead or alive this fall, his political pulse seems strong.

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at dpolman@phillynews.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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