By Michael Scherer
Barack Obama's top pollster, Joel Benenson, talks fast. "Like a New Yorker, because I am," he says. The night before we spoke, he slept four hours, and after more than a year of watching the numbers slide around his big client's signature initiative, health care reform, one can forgive him for betraying a bit of frustration. "It's never enough to just say people are unhappy," he explains. "You've got to understand why they are unhappy."
Since August, he's had to deal with "death panels," the "cornhusker kickback" and daily proclamations of a "government takeover" of health care. He has watched Obama's approval rating fall from the high 60s to the high 40s, while opposition to Democratic health care reforms have inched above 50% in many polls. Recently, he's even had Republican leaders declare that Democratic hopes for the November elections will collapse if health care reform becomes law. "Do you really think the Republicans are out there trying to save Democrats from themselves?" he asks.
Through the worst days, Benenson's message has remained the same. Push forward. Get it done. Three years ago, Benenson, a former New York Daily News reporter from Queens, went head to head with one of the best in the business, Hillary Clinton's pollster Mark Penn, challenging a candidate of "experience" with a candidate of "change." His team toppled conventional wisdom. Now he tells wavering Democrats in Congress to take their own leap of faith: Look past the numbers that show widespread dismay at the health care debate and a nation deeply divided over the Democratic bill. Believe that health care reform is a 2010 win for Democrats.
His argument flows in several directions at once. First of all, he says, the details of reform, as Democrats hope to frame it, are far more popular than the package as a whole. Americans overwhelmingly want to end the insurance industry's practice of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. They want to be able to afford coverage when they are between jobs. They want seniors to have more help with prescription-drug costs. Second, he says, the worst fears of Americans will never be realized. "Is somebody's elderly parent or relative going to be put to death by a death panel?" he asks. "No. It doesn't exist." Third, a sizable chunk of those who oppose the current bill — roughly 1 in 6 in a January CNN poll — want the bill to be even more liberal.
But perhaps most important of all, Benenson believes the current polls confuse a skepticism about health care reform with broad discontent over the political process in Washington. "This is what people don't understand," he says. "People are frustrated that Congress doesn't seem able to work together to do the job that people think they sent them there to do." A solution to this problem is action.
This view is widely held within Obama's inner circle, and it is the reason that the White House has done the unthinkable in the first three months of an election year. After extended agony in 2009, with the gritty legislative ticktock undercutting the new President's glistening promise of change, Obama decided to double down in February, forcing more weeks of painful process discussions and bewildering ruminations on parliamentary procedures like "reconciliation" and "self-executing" rules.
That soon will end, and an even more political phase is about to begin. White House aides have been conducting themselves in recent weeks like sweaty brawlers awaiting the starting bell. Asked about Republican plans to attack the White House on health care in November, senior message guru David Axelrod did his best impression of Dirty Harry. "I say, Let's have that fight," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "Make my day."
Obama's aides hope that the passage of health care reform will allow Democrats to reset the debate, away from internal party anxiety and dysfunction. Benenson and others in the White House have mapped out a strategy through November, one that they are betting will put Republicans on the defensive over such issues as reforming Wall Street and money in politics. "Remember, elections are about choices," Benenson says, offering the classic election-year battle cry. "There is a lot of action that is going to happen pretty quickly here that is going to create clear contrast."
In other words, there is still time for the tide to turn.