As the White House barrels toward the open enrollment period for the nation's new healthcare law, the administration is deploying the man Obama once called the "Secretary of Explaining Stuff" -- former President Bill Clinton -- to make the case for it from his native state of Arkansas on Wednesday.
The speech at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock will draw a small, invitation-only audience of doctors and healthcare professionals. But it is certain to summon attention as the first in a series of speeches by influential political figures and celebrities who are trying to help the White House convince the public of the benefits of the law, which remains unpopular and a source of widespread confusion.
In just one indication of the challenges facing the administration when open enrollment begins in October, 4 in 10 people polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said, erroneously, that they thought the law had been repealed or overturned -- or were unsure about whether it remained in place. About half the respondents in the poll released in late August didn’t know how it would affect their families.
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The silver lining for the White House? Individual aspects of the law, like guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting conditions, remain popular. The Aug. 28 Kaiser Health Tracking Poll also found that a majority of those surveyed did not support Republican efforts to roll back or defund the law.
The task for Clinton, who last year delivered a well-received defense of the law at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, will be to outline the benefits of the law that are already in place, as well as those that will be available after the health insurance marketplaces open in October. Aides to Clinton would not say how active a role he would take in the coming months; they have not announced any other speeches on the topic.
Clinton’s potential to help the administration is significant. The former president also remains popular among African Americans, Latinos and young people, three groups whose enrollment is necessary if the law is to succeed. And though the Clinton Foundation is best known on the healthcare front for its efforts to expand access to medicine and care in the developing world, the organization is also involved in a series of domestic healthcare programs such as the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is focused on reducing childhood obesity.
Aides described Clinton’s Little Rock remarks, which he was still crafting Tuesday night, as a “policy speech,” but the former president has not been shy about challenging Republicans who advocate repealing the law, often noting that they have not offered the public a compelling alternative.
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Still, the politics are tricky, particularly for his wife -- who is considering a run for president in 2016 and will not attend the speech tomorrow. Any focus on the law by Hillary Rodham Clinton would undoubtedly remind voters of her failed attempt to push through healthcare reform as first lady. And the former secretary of State has mostly avoided political speeches since stepping down earlier this year.
Given the uncertain future of the healthcare law, her advisors are not keen on thrusting her into the midst of the debate, which is expected to be a central issue again in the 2014 elections across the country.
The political perils of the Affordable Care Act for other Democrats are glaring in red states like Arkansas, which Obama lost by double digits in 2012. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a moderate Democrat, has come under fire from Republicans for supporting the act. His spokeswoman told the Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., that Pryor had a previous engagement and would not be attending the former president's speech.
The speech will be broadcast live on the Web at www.clintonfoundation.org at 8 a.m. PST and 10 a.m. Central Time.