Political News

Trump's health care rhetoric shows at least short term appeal

Posted February 6, 2020 6:45 p.m. EST

— Before the State of the Union speech she would later rip up on camera, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called a news conference to rip President Donald Trump's "all-out assault on health care."

Afterward, reactions of key voter groups to Trump's televised prime-time address helped explain that pre-emptive strike. Democratic research found the speech's passage on health care the single most politically valuable element.

Stan Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster who helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992, gauged reaction to the speech online on behalf of the liberal Voter Participation Center and the American Federation of Teachers, two constituencies crucial to November's election. Across a range of issues and personal characteristics, Trump improved his standing on health care more than anything else.

Polls typically show presidents get only a modest, short-term boost in public esteem from the annual ritual of speaking from the House to a vast television audience. Greenberg hopes the shifts he measured prove similarly ephemeral.

But in a reelection fight that promises to be close, Trump's speech signaled how and where his campaign will seek marginal advantages. It contained passages tailored for target voters including white women, African Americans, Hispanics and millennials.

Before the speech, the collection of those voters Greenberg questioned rated Trump negatively on "making health care more affordable" by a 2-to-1 margin.

Then they heard the President's attempt to diminish his vulnerability.

"Before I took office, health insurance premiums had more than doubled in just five years," Trump said in his speech. "I moved quickly to provide affordable alternatives. Our new plans are up to 60% less expensive, and better."

At least for a moment, the message worked. After the speech, target voters split closely on Trump's handling of health care affordability. The magnitude of that reversal exceeded those on other objects of Trump's boasts. But Greenberg measured headway on multiple issues.

"We will always protect your Medicare, and we will always protect your Social Security," Trump pledged. Those assertions turned a lopsidedly negative assessment into an even split on his handling of those retiree benefit programs.

"We are restoring America's manufacturing might," the President said, proclaiming a "blue-collar boom." On that issue, a modest deficit before the speech turned into a solid edge afterward.

Trump vowed his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada will "massively boost exports for our farmers, ranchers and factory workers" while producing "a much greater degree of fairness and reciprocity." That, too, boosted the target voters' pre-speech evaluations.

Those dividends moved voters' overall approval of Trump and, to varying degrees, their willingness to back his reelection. Among African Americans, approval quadrupled, though their willingness to vote for Trump didn't budge.

Among white millennials, approval and voting support rose sharply. Trump reaped narrower gains among Hispanics and blue-collar white women.

Even slight improvements for Trump could tip the balance in Midwest battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Sunbelt targets, such as Florida and Arizona. But Greenberg said his findings suggest rebuttals from Democratic congressional candidates and the party's eventual nominee can head off GOP gains.

Much of the President's rhetoric ranged from misleading to simply false. The economy's manufacturing sector, for example, has fallen into recession.

The new trade deal with Canada and Mexico made only modest revisions to its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has aimed to repeal Obamacare protections that keep health coverage affordable for those with pre-existing conditions.

He has already proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In an interview last month, the President said he was open to more cuts in a second term.

Trump's stance on health care helped propel the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018 midterm elections. By seeking short-term advantage through dubious State of the Union claims, the President could shift debate onto favorable Democratic ground and enlarge his vulnerability later.

"He moved the needle on health care artificially," Greenberg said. "That creates opportunity for Democrats."

In any case, Trump's strategy will only reward him if he has the discipline to sustain it over the nine months until Election Day. A single speech -- even a State of the Union with emotional reality show flourishes -- quickly fades from memory.

"He'll get the usual uptick," observed Mike Murphy, an ad-maker and strategist for part Republican presidential campaigns. "Gone in a month."

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