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Obamacare Ad Wars

12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2009 • By LIBBY STERNBERG
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While supporters of the health-care bill focus on politics, opponents focus on policy.

President Obama made an unfortunate stumble in his August 11 town hall meeting on health care reform. "FedEx and UPS are doing just fine," he said, attempting to allay fears that a public option would drive private insurers out of the market. "It's the Post Office that's always having problems."

That's precisely what Americans fear, though--that any government-run program would simply eat up tax dollars while they stood in long lines for service. Inadvertently, the president captured Americans' views about health care reform.

Polls suggest that people are reasonably content with their health care coverage now--even with all its imperfections. They might want to see costs lowered or access increased, but they're deeply skeptical of a Post Office approach to those problems.

This is what supporters of health care reform don't seem to get--that Americans are concerned about the policy itself. Supporters of reform seem more concerned about the politics, casting aspersions on town hall participants, saying they're "Astroturf" and not grassroots, or "un-American" for speaking out loudly.

This focus on politics over policy continues in the video ads aired on television and the web. These ads offer an illustration of what opponents are concerned about and how feckless supporters are by focusing on politics over policy. Here's a quick round-up of some ads pro and con:

Pro-Obamacare: A religious progressives' advertisement features clergy and other ordinary church-goers (identified as such in the subtitles) telling us, one after the other, how "special interest groups are spending millions" to block reform and how these churchgoers pray we get reform. If this ad is targeting like-minded citizens of faith, it's subtly insulting. It presumes that all you need do is dangle a clerical collar in front of religious people and they'll follow you anywhere. The overall message, however, is that special interests are torpedoing reform.

Anti-Obamacare: In an ad run by the Family Research Council, a man anguishes over a rejection letter, saying to his wife, "They won't pay for my surgery." He goes on: "To think that Planned Parenthood is included" in the health plan, along with "spending tax dollars for abortions." The voiceover at the end sums it up: "Our greatest generation denied care, our future generation denied life." While the denied surgery isn't named, many viewers have probably been in that man's shoes, getting a similar rejection from an insurance company. Viewers know that government plans are unlikely to be any better and might even be worse (as the president acknowledged). The ad focuses on specific policy concerns--denial of care and tax-funded abortion.

Pro-Obamacare: Moveon.org has a few ads out--their main thrust being special interests and Republicans are blocking reform. One shows people in waiting rooms morphing into piles of cash while a voiceover tells us that insurance companies see money when they look at patients, and this is why the insurance companies are blocking reform. Insurance companies are heartless? Who knew? This is unlikely to persuade the skeptics or those on the fence.

You can always count on Moveon.org's tin ear when it comes to paid messages, though, as evidenced by another of their ads showing a football tossed around while a voiceover reads quotes that appear on the screen from various conservative politicians and pundits showing how conservatives want to score a political point by squashing reform. As if the visual isn't clear enough, the voiceover explains that Republicans have turned health reform into a "political football." Like the ad mentioned above, the focus is politics, not policy.