Reactions to Obama's Joint Session Address: Public Option


As the Congress moves to floor action on health care reform, we wanted to highlight some important language and narrative issues - both for producing more intense support and engagement and for moving swing-independent voters. This memo focuses on the public option, which has received great scrutiny in the health care reform debate but has gained support with the public in recent polls. We want to offer this memo to highlight the framing and language that proved most effective in President Obama’s joint session address on health care, using the immediate dial reactions of 50 independent and swing voters in Denver, Colorado, the night of the address.

Executive Summary

As the Congress moves to floor action on health care reform, we wanted to highlight some important language and narrative issues - both for producing more intense support and engagement and for moving swing-independent voters. This memo focuses on the public option, which has received great scrutiny in the health care reform debate but has gained support with the public in recent polls. We want to offer this memo to highlight the framing and language that proved most effective in President Obama’s joint session address on health care, using the immediate dial reactions of 50 independent and swing voters in Denver, Colorado, the night of the address.

Key Findings

  • The public option’s purpose is to help hold insurance companies accountable, forcing them to change bad practices. Throughout the speech, voters reacted positively when President Obama spoke about reform holding the insurance companies accountable and forcing them to change some of their questionable or dishonest practices. Obama employed this tactic explicitly when introducing the “public option,” stating that it is not his goal to put private insurance companies out of business but simply to hold them accountable. Ratings from all voters spike at hearing this with the most positive reaction coming from Democratic participants who move their dials to 80, while ratings from Republican voters spiked as well, moving to above 60.
  • Democrats and independents are reassured by statement that no one will be forced to choose the public option. When President Obama reassures voters that “no one would be forced to choose (the public option) and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance,” voters’ reactions come largely along partisan lines. The dials of Democratic voters jump about 20 points on the 0 to 100 scale, while the independents move up 10 points and Republicans drop about 10 points.
  • All are reassured that public option will not be funded by the taxpayers. President Obama reassured voters that the public option would not be a taxpayer-funded entity, but rather, “like any private insurance company, the public option will be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.” Hearing that this option would be self-sufficient results in an uptick among all voters, with the sharpest increase in support coming from Republicans. Their rating of the president immediately increased by 10 points, moving from the low 40s, where they had hovered for much of the discussion of the public option, quickly into the low 50s. Reassuring voters that this public option would not be paid for with taxpayer dollars was an important point, especially to Republican voters who are more likely than most to view the public option as a step toward a government takeover of health care.
  • Democrats respond to presidential call for bipartisanship, end of “wild claims.” President Obama concluded the portion of his speech on the public option by warning that neither Democrats nor Republicans should use this controversial piece of reform as an excuse to engage in the political and ideological battles that undermine progress in Washington. He went on to say that instead of making “wild claims about a government takeover of health care,” Republicans should work with him to address their legitimate concerns. This generated an enthusiastic response from Democrats and a positive, but less intense, reaction from independents while Republicans were turned off, ticking down closer to 40 on the dials.
  • Voters ready to accept that the public option is not “government run health care,” but a way to keep insurance companies accountable and expand choice, without being funded by taxpayers. It appears that this section of the speech achieved at least some of its goals. Before the speech by a near two-to-one margin (60 to 32 percent), these voters agreed that Obama’s plan was “government run health care.” After the speech, they reversed their earlier sentiment with a 54 to 46 percent majority saying the phrase did not describe Obama’s plan well. This was one of the larger shifts we observed in our pre- and post- speech questionnaire.

Click the video link below to view this portion of the speech:

Methodology

On September 9, 2009, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Democracy Corps conducted “dial groups” or real-time focus group analysis of President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on health care. The groups were comprised of swing voters in Denver, Colorado and were evenly divided among those who initially supported and initially opposed Obama’s health care plan, with an almost equal division between Obama and McCain voters. The testing consisted of two parts: First, participants were asked using a dial-meter to rank Obama’s speech in real-time, instantly gauging what he was saying on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being extremely negative and 100 being extremely positive. Second, participants rated Obama on a number of measures before and after the speech to see how the speech changed their opinions.

Memo