By now, there are thousands of people who can make Barack Obama and the Democrats’ case for the Affordable Care Act. Across the nation, there must be countless tales of Americans who would be broke and broken were it not for Obamacare. They have to exist in all walks of life, in every state, of all political persuasions.
And yet this week, as Monday’s deadline approached for signing up for 2015 health plans, none of those people appeared as part of the pitch. The most frequently aired TV ad features a racially diverse cast of young people speaking in generalities about how their Obamacare plans provided “peace of mind” at a surprisingly low, low price. These folks, none of whom seem to have been sick, gush about the heckuva deal they got and how happy it makes them.
But why? Why is America still being asked to take it on faith that the ACA is a social and moral good? Why does the Obama Administration continue, even after these many years of largely unanswered attacks by Republican opponents, with a failed marketing effort that amounts to, “Trust us! You’ll love it!”
Here’s the ACA ad they should make: a grizzled, Duck Dynasty-like Alabaman stands outside a neonatal intensive care unit. “I was against Obamacare,” he tells the camera. “I sure didn’t vote for Obama, either. And, man, I liked my health plan, wanted to keep it. When I found out I couldn’t, boy was I pissed.” The camera pans to a wriggling baby, tubes everywhere, the man’s wife gazing longingly into the incubator holding their child. “Then my daughter was born, and she almost died,” he says, choking up a little. “My old plan wouldn’t have covered this. We would’ve lost the house, probably would’ve had to go bankrupt. It’s all still pretty dang expensive, I can’t lie. But my Obamacare coverage really saved us. Thanks, Obamacare!”
You think that’s some liberal, nanny-state fever dream? It’s not. This is not conjecture; it is a statistical certainty based on all the data used by insurance carriers to set rates. A certain chunk of the 8 million people who signed on to Obamacare plans – or the millions more whose existing plans were bolstered to comply with the ACA – suffered health catastrophes in 2014. Many opposed the law and were angry when Obama’s “like it, keep it” promise was broken. But without the reform that required comprehensive plans and eliminated rejections of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, many would have met the same fate of so many in recent decades.
That is, lest anyone forget, how it was. Obama, strangely, really never told those stories back then, either. In 2009, when he stood before a joint session of Congress to make his case for health insurance reform, the political genius who campaigned in 2008 with such art and eloquence failed to use the moment to introduce skeptics to a parade of average, hard-working Americans who endured the all-too-common financial devastation of a serious illness. Can’t you see those people, their wheelchairs and colostomy bags and adorable kids, festooning the dais as Obama made his case? How could a purported Judeo-Christian nation see those faces and hear those stories and not agree that something had to change? Instead, the president gave a boring, wonky speech that nobody remembers, a teaser for the incompetent public relations effort to come.
And there they go again. The current marketing effort also failed to appeal to anyone’s emotions or sense of justice. Rather, it insisted that having good insurance makes you feel good about yourself the way, say, eating tofu or reading Tolstoy might. Perhaps Obama once had to rely on unproven predictions, but that ended on Jan. 1, 2014. Since then, ACA supporters have had their pick of uplifting stories of tragedy averted by this law.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., knows this. Last month, in a Chicago Sun-Times essay, she cited several specific cases of ACA success. Cancer-stricken David Price, for instance, saved $4,000 this year on his meds versus 2013. Gary Wood, bankrupted 18 years ago by the cost of care from a heart attack and then shut out of coverage ever since, underwent a life-saving quintuple bypass in 2014 paid for by the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. And so on. It’s not hard to find these people. They’re everywhere, even in the deepest red of states.
The gang behind this year’s campaign offered up just one limp trick: rebranding. The TV ad, for instance, opens with a woman who says, “Healthcare.gov allows me to continue on with my life.” In other words, it’s not Obamacare. It’s not even the ACA. It’s now just “healthcare-dot-gov,” as if that’s a policy or a government program rather than a place on the Internet. Given that the rollout of the website was among the biggest PR disasters of any sort in recent history, it’s an odd and ineffectual choice.
Stop being so cute. This is really, really easy; just tell the story. It goes like this: Obamacare has successes. It has already saved many Americans from financial doom. It has improved the health care of millions. It has given many entrepreneurs the courage to quit jobs they hated and start new businesses. Here, meet some of these folks. They’re just like you. You could be next.
The evidence is now on Obama’s side. It is mystifying that he doesn’t seem to know it.
Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico.