MAUMEE, Ohio — It came 20 minutes deep into a campaign speech, but President Barack Obama delivered the line emphatically, and the crowd roared back.
"The law I passed is here to stay!"
The law is the Affordable Care Act, legislation that is to Democrats so monumental — "a big (expletive) deal," as Vice President Joe Biden whispered to Obama the day it was signed — they have embraced the term Republicans used to belittle it: Obamacare. Exactly a week before Obama arrived here Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it constitutional.
But if he were due a victory lap, Obama barely suited up. He addressed the law fleetingly in stops across Ohio on Thursday, the start of his first bus trip of the 2012 presidential campaign. "Now is not the time to spend four more years refighting battles we fought two years ago," Obama said in Maumee, near Toledo. "We are moving forward."
Obama and his advisers are betting that middle-class Americans want to focus on their economic security, the theme Obama pressed in three stops in Ohio and again in Pennsylvania on Friday, and it is unquestionably voters' top concern. The strategy, however, ignores powerful forces keeping health care out front and bitterly divided public opinion, including among independent voters who will decide the election.
Not stoking the fire is a safe approach aimed at those independents, but it underscores communication failures that helped Obama get in this position. Republicans mobilized against the law in 2010, stripping Obama's lock on Congress, and have not let up, seizing on the Supreme Court's characterization of the penalty for failing to carry insurance as a "tax."
This week, the U.S. House will vote on repeal of the law, a symbolic gesture given Democratic control of the Senate, but the point is to keep the issue in the news. Polls show Republicans are now more motivated to vote and millions of dollars are flooding to candidates. GOP nominee Mitt Romney, despite championing a health care law in Massachusetts that is nearly identical to Obama's, received $4.6 million in contributions within 24 hours of the ruling.
Across Ohio and 11 other swing states, TV viewers are seeing $9 million worth of ads from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity that link the law to economic worries. "How can we afford this tax?" a narrator asks. "We're already struggling. Tell Obama, repeal the health care law and pass patient-centered reform."
Scoffed Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee: "Let them pick health care. It's great for rallying their base; it certainly isn't going to do anything to win the election. I think the president is right to do this. The most important question is which of these two men understand ordinary Americans."
Pressed whether Democrats are passing up an opportunity to respond to the new Republican line of attack, he said: "A tax? That debate is over. It's irrelevant."
But others are concerned about a 2010 replay. Democrats lost the health care messaging battle to a sea of often misleading and or untrue (death panels? government takeover?) claims. Through it all, Obama, one of the greatest orators his party has seen, has come across as an ineffective salesman.
"He risks squandering the opportunity to connect emotionally with Americans about the signature achievement of his presidency," said Michael Millenson, a health care consultant in Illinois who frequently writes on the subject. "He has let himself be defined as a bureaucrat rather than someone who is really helping provide access to lifesaving care and who is also helping the fundamental changes in the health care system that have been put off for decades. President Obama is a candidate in 2012 who doesn't seem like he knows much about candidate Obama in 2008."
Addressing health care in Ohio, Obama ticked off some popular provisions, such as allowing children to remain on their parents' insurance plans until they are 26 and a prohibition of plans to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. When he mentioned these, his audiences cheered louder than they did for most of his talking points on the economy. But Obama moved on.
After an afternoon stop in Sandusky on Thursday, a woman approached Obama and said her sister died from colon cancer four years ago because she did not have adequate insurance. The sobbing woman, Stephanie Miller, thanked Obama for passing the law.
Obama, however, passed up the chance to relate the story to a large crowd gathered for a sunset rally about an hour away in Parma. He said he wanted to clear up misinformation about the law but never addressed Republicans' "tax" charge. Only during an interview with an NBC affiliate on Thursday did Obama confront his rival.
"Mr. Romney was one of the biggest promoters of the individual mandate," Obama said. "In Massachusetts, his whole idea was that we shouldn't have people who can afford to get health insurance to not buy it and then force you or me, or John Q. Public to have to pay for him when he gets sick. That's irresponsible. That's exactly what's included as part of my health care plan. And the fact that a whole bunch of Republicans in Washington suddenly said, 'This is a tax' — for six years he said it wasn't, and now he has suddenly reversed himself. So the question becomes, are you doing that because of politics?"
Polls taken after the Supreme Court ruling show the public is closely divided on the law. Democrats overwhelmingly approve it; Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove. Independent voters without a partisan tilt were evenly split on the court ruling, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, but 51 percent said opponents of the law should stop trying to block it (56 percent of voters overall held that view).
A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed overall increased support for the law, including among independents, but found the individual mandate remains deeply unpopular with 39 percent backing it and 61 percent opposing.
That would seem to validate Obama's "move on" approach. He's trying to appeal to independents and mentioned Thursday that he was willing to work with "anyone" to improve the law.
"People, particularly people who aren't very partisan, like leaders who get things done. I think he will get some bump for his leadership," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard University professor who studies health care polling. "But the Republicans are not going to quit and they think they have an issue that mobilizes their side and think they have an edge on independents. To no surprise, it's tough to draw long-term conclusions."
The mixed view came through in Maumee, where Obama held a campaign rally outside a museum. Hay bales, American flags and red, white and blue banners gave off an Americana feel as Bruce Springsteen blared from speakers. People held newspapers over their heads as shelter from the sun but were ecstatic when Obama arrived.
"He saved the auto business. He got Osama bin Laden," said Marv Traver, 70. He said he wanted Obama to speak up more on health care. (The candidate spent 1:20 on the subject amid a 28-minute speech.) "The American people want to hear more. A lot of people are unsure and nervous about it."
Including Traver. He said he was worried about the tax, unaware that he would not be affected because he already has insurance.
Eric Herbster, a 35-year-old in a baseball cap, praised Obama for pushing Congress to extend unemployment benefits several times. He lost his job as a bricklayer three years ago and work has been spotty. "Without those benefits, me and my two sons would have starved. He has saved my a --, excuse my language." But he, too, paused when asked about health care.
"I have no insurance. I haven't had it for five years. With the new Obamacare, basically it means I'm going to have to pay." When told that the law included a push to expand Medicaid and provide other subsidies for people who cannot afford coverage, Herbster said: "I didn't know that. But down the road, it's going to come out of my pocket."
Mary Anne McAuley, an independent voter who voted for Obama in 2008 but is undecided this election, said something needs to be done on health care but she was unsure about Obama's approach, if only because she still finds it confusing:
"I can't imagine making everybody have health insurance is going to help those who can afford it vs. those who cannot. I don't think it's going to help me at all."