Jonathan Gruber, who played a central role in crafting Obama's health law, said the moral of that story was that most Americans are happy with their health care and are resistant to change. So rather than cast Obama's effort as ripping up the health care system and starting from scratch, Gruber said, the administration emphasized that most Americans wouldn't be affected.
"The view was, 'Look, we've got to get this across the finish line.' To do that, you have to explain to people in a way that they understand," Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. "You present the facts in a way that's ultimately not 100 percent accurate for every person, but tries to get across the gist of what you're trying to do."
To be sure, Republicans set out to lambast and undermine the law from the beginning. Democrats claim a deliberate campaign to misinform the public about the law made explaining it clearly that much harder. The law's critics argued it would hurt small businesses and kill jobs, drive up costs, lead to rationing and put health care decisions in the hands of politically-motivated bureaucrats.
Each of those allegations could be easily captured in a sound bite. So Obama fought back by being equally straight-to-the-point.
"You have to pay attention to what your opponents are saying, and do what you can to correct the record," said Nick Papas, the White House's spokesman for health care for the first three years after the law passed. "The Republicans in Washington were lying to people and leaving tens of millions of Americans with the impression they were going to lose their health insurance, that this was going to be an apocalyptic development for the American health care system."
Such differing interpretations of the same set of facts is reflected in polling that suggests the public doesn't quite know what to think about the law more than three years after Obama signed it. Although the figures have ebbed and flowed, Americans remain relatively split, with 38 percent viewing the law favorably and 44 percent viewing it unfavorably, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's monthly tracking poll.
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has studied public opinion on health care, said what's been missing from the White House's message is how completely dysfunctional the health insurance system was before "Obamacare."
"You need to have a coherent framework for why we're doing it that allows you to get through the glitches that were inevitable," Greenberg said. "We never really explained to people why we're doing this."
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