FALLS CHURCH, Va. – Blaming himself for coolness to his health care overhaul, President Barack Obama is seeking to reintroduce the law to voters who don't much like or understand it six months after he signed it.
The White House gathered patients from around the country who have benefited from the measure, and the president rolled up his sleeves to address them Wednesday in a sunny Virginia backyard, highlighting changes that take effect at the six-month mark on Thursday. These include a ban on lifetime coverage limits, as well as free coverage for preventive care and immunizations. Young adults will be able to stay on their parents' plans until they turn 26, and kids with pre-existing health conditions won't be denied coverage.
"We just got to give people some basic peace of mind," the president said,
"I thank you from the bottom of my heart," Norma Byrne of Vineland, N.J., told the president, explaining she was benefiting from the law's provisions that are closing a Medicare coverage gap for prescription drugs.
But such gratitude isn't the norm.
A new Associated Press poll finds high levels of misunderstanding about what's actually in the law, and more people opposed than in support. And with crucial midterm elections six weeks away, the only Democrats running ads about the historic legislation are the ones who voted "no."
"The six-month anniversary of ObamaCare will be a lonely one for President Obama and congressional Democrats," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Wednesday. "The president's plan was unpopular when it was passed in March, and today the wholesale takeover of the American health care system is undeniably radioactive."
Obama ruefully told his listeners, "Sometimes I fault myself for not being able to make the case more clearly to the country."
Still, he took on Republicans who want to repeal the law, daring them to tell that to a cancer patient covered by a new high-risk pool, or a parent whose child was able to get insurance despite a pre-existing health condition.
"It makes sense in terms of politics and polls," Obama said of the GOP position. "It doesn't make sense in terms of actually making people's lives better."
Yet politics and polls are a major concern for Democrats who are on the ballot in November — elections for every House seat and a third of the Senate. And Democrats aren't seeing the political benefit Obama promised them when he told them they'd be proud to campaign on the measure. In the House, 219 Democrats voted for the health bill, but the party's only House members highlighting their votes in ad campaigns are a few of the 34 who opposed the measure and can now boast of their independence.
The White House is playing down the significance of the new law as a campaign issue.
"Health care will play a role in individual campaigns, but this is not an election about health care," Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, said in an interview. "This is an election about jobs and the economy."
Agreeing that the economy is the foremost concern, Obama nonetheless insisted Wednesday, "Health care was one of those issues that we could no longer ignore."
The president dug deep into his own history as he sought to relate to voters. As he has in the past, the president described his mother's struggle with the ovarian cancer that killed her, wondering aloud whether she might have had a better outcome with better insurance coverage. He talked about younger daughter Sasha's bout of meningitis, and his feeling of desperation. He said he had thought to himself, "What if I hadn't had insurance?"
The new AP poll finds just 30 percent of people in favor of and 40 percent opposed to the 10-year, nearly $1 trillion law to extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured. Another 30 percent were neither in favor nor opposed.
There remains much confusion about the law's provisions. More than a third of respondents wrongly think it contains panels of bureaucrats to make decisions about people's care — what critics labeled "death panels" — and 65 percent believe congressional budget analysts said it would increase the government's debt. In fact, budget analysts say it will reduce red ink.
The biggest changes in the legislation, such as the new purchasing pools and requirement for everyone to carry insurance, don't kick in until 2014. Among changes taking effect this week:
_Young adults can remain on family health plans until they turn 26.
_Free immunization provided for kids.
_Free preventive care provided, such as mammograms and cholesterol screenings.
_No more lifetime coverage limits, and annual limits start to phase out.
_Plans can't cancel coverage for people who get sick.
_No denial of coverage for kids with pre-existing health conditions.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Falls Church, Va., and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS polling figure of people who think there would be "death panels" to more than a third, instead of a quarter.)