Memo: It's officially safe to criticize Barack Obama 

There's a lot of buzz on Capitol Hill about a new health care memo, by strategist/communicator Frank Luntz, which is filled with advice for opponents of the Democrats' reform legislation. The memo analyzes the public's concerns that national health care will result in lower quality care at higher cost, with an out-of-control deficit to boot, and Luntz recommends language to help critics make the case against the legislation more effectively. For example, he suggests opponents would be better off avoiding the phrase public option; calling it the government option is better.

The new memo updates a similar analysis Luntz wrote last May. Some of the advice is familiar. But one striking difference between the two documents is in the treatment of Barack Obama. Last May, Luntz advised politicians to stay away -- far away -- from criticizing the president. "Your political opponents are the Democrats in Congress and the bureaucrats in Washington, not President Obama," Luntz wrote. "Every time we test language that criticized the president by name, the response was negative -- even among Republicans." He continued: "If you make this debate about Republicans vs. Obama, you lose. But if you make it about Americans vs. politicians, you win." Therefore, the advice was to go after Washington bureaucrats and government health care, but never Obama.

That was then. Now, things are different. "In the spring, we counseled strongly that you should avoid direct confrontation with President Obama," Luntz writes in the new memo. "That has changed." The "thrill is gone" from Obama's relationship with the American people, Luntz writes, and it's now OK to go after the president's proposals with the president's name attached. "There is no change in support for the plan if it is called 'Barack Obama's plan' instead of the plan of 'Democrats in Congress,'" Luntz says. "So long as the attack is grounded in policy and NOT personage, you can talk about opposing 'President Obama's plan.'"

That said, Luntz still doesn't advise doing it. "While you no longer shoot yourself in the foot by criticizing the president, you would do much better to criticize Congress -- which has disapproval ratings that will clearly sink some re-election hopes," Luntz writes. While many Republicans insist on calling health care reform "Obamacare," Luntz says they would do better by attacking "Washington."

To many readers, Luntz's advice might seem more than a little late; obviously there is a lot of criticism of Obama in the public conversation. But Luntz's memo, based on extensive research and testing of political language, will mean something for the more cautious and timid Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It will assure them that not only can they go after the worst Democratic policy proposals, but they can tie them to Obama without fear of backlash from their own voters. Obama's personal popularity rating, which hit 78 percent in a Gallup poll last January, has now fallen to 56 percent. Among politically-crucial independents, it has fallen from 75 percent in January to 52 percent today. Numbers like that mean Obama's intimidation factor has disappeared. Luntz's memo gives health-care opponents a road map for taking advantage of that fact.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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