Clinton takes off on wave of enthusiasm for health care plan

September 24, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Riding a surge of post-speech euphoria, a pumped-up President Clinton tried yesterday to stoke national support for his plan to guarantee health insurance to every American.

Even though White House strategists recognize that enthusiasm for the plan will fade as tough decisions are made in Congress, they express confidence that the president is riding the crest of public opinion on health reform.

"We have an incredible historic opportunity . . . to reach across party and regional lines to unite people," the president told cheering supporters at the White House yesterday, ". . . the opportunity of a generation."

A fresh batch of public opinion polls seemed to justify that view: Of those who watched the speech, 66 percent said the plan is "fair to people like me," with only 16 percent saying no, according to a CBS poll. A CNN poll found that although about half those surveyed thought their health care costs would increase under Mr. Clinton's plan, it was still favored by a margin of nearly 4 to 1.

Clinton aides, buoyed by the response to his televised address to Congress Wednesday night, turned the White House operation into a virtual relay station for spreading the religion on health care.

A dozen Cabinet officials and top administration aides fanned out across the nation, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Houston, to promote the plan. And in Tampa, Fla., the president fielded questions on health care from ordinary Americans at a nationally televised "town-meeting" that ran late into the night.

In evidence everywhere yesterday was Mr. Clinton's easy grasp of what's wrong with complex health care issues, his apparently infectious conviction that government can help fix it and his politically shrewd appeal for bipartisan support.

After Mrs. Clinton had praised a Republican proposal that would not require every small employer to provide health care for their workers -- a huge sticking point under the Clinton plan -- she was asked if this was a negotiable item.

"That's one of the things we're going to be exploring," Mrs. Clinton replied.

The administration also used something that wasn't available to them last year -- the unique pomp and ceremony of the presidency itself -- to push the plan. As the president walked out on the South Lawn under a huge tent yesterday, the Marine Band broke into "Hail to the Chief." One thousand supporters of his health care plan stood and applauded the president and vice president.

"None of this would even be pipe dream if it weren't for all of you," an enthusiastic Mrs. Clinton told the crowd, many of whom represent health care groups the administration has won over.

Small business owners continue to be the most skeptical of Mr. Clinton's plan because it requires business to pay up to 7.9 percent of payroll costs in health care premiums.

Last night in Florida, Jim Morrison, a Tampa businessman with 10 employees, told the president he pays 4 percent of payroll in health insurance for a plan that pays 100 percent of his employees' costs -- but not their dependents', which Clinton's plan would require.

"Under your plan, I'll pay for 31 people," Mr. Morrison said.

But the president explained that his plan has a built-in discount for firms with fewer than 50 employees.

All night the questions kept coming: from a retired schoolteacher with AIDS who discovered a lot of doctors don't want Medicaid patients; from a woman whose 4-year-old child nearly drowned and worries that the physical therapy he needs won't be there if her husband ever changes jobs; from another woman who learned recently that her insurance company and not her physician made the decision on when she was well enough to leave the hospital.

To all them the president insisted that his plan would benefit them. It will "enhance the quality of care, not undermine it," he said.

The president spoke with quick confidence about intricate details of the plan, earned the audience's applause several times and even seemed to disarm skeptical moderator Ted Koppel.

Shown an ABC poll that showed 64 percent of the American people like his plan -- compared to only 17 percent who didn't -- the confident-sounding president quipped, "Sixty-four percent are right."

The entire mood yesterday at the White House was euphoric. Not only did many aides believe Mr. Clinton's speech the previous night was the finest hour of his administration, but many also suggested that, for the first time, the president has Republicans in Congress right where he wants them.

Not only is the GOP divided on this issue -- Republicans in Congress have submitted two dueling plans -- but the party risks being on the wrong side of a growing public consensus for what the president has labeled "health care security."

"They know that anybody who looks like they are obstructing health care reform is going to have a lot to answer for with the voters," said Bob Boorstin, a top presidential adviser on health care.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats were openly upbeat; Republicans sounded conciliatory.

"We're in an immediate atmosphere of bipartisan euphoria," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat and

leading proponent of health reform. "I'm sure that will dip over the next few months as people begin to get into the details of the plan, [but] even so, the signals that both parties are willing to work together have to be seen as very favorable at this point."

"People are really excited about the prospect of reforming the health care system, and they are less focused than I expected on how it would affect them personally," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, who said he is even more optimistic now than he was before the president's speech Wednesday night.

Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican who helped write one GOP alternative, said there is much work left to do. "But I think we all share a desire to come up with a package that we hope will work."

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