Can Obama Sell Health Care Reform Without Getting Too Specific?

President Obama heads to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., today to hold a health care town hall. It's the second time in a week that Obama has taken questions from the public on reform efforts. Last Wednesday, Obama participated in an ABC News forum on the topic at the White House. Today, Obama will take questions from a live audience, as well as those submitted via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It's all a part of Obama's efforts to use his own political popularity to get health care reform through Congress. This marks a bit of a strategy change for the White House. Initially, Obama tried to take a hands-off approach to the legislation, allowing Congress to take the lead. The plan seemed based on not repeating the mistakes of the Clinton White House which saw its reform efforts go down the tubes in 1993 when it took a heavy-handed approach to the bill, as opposed to letting lawmakers run the show. But Obama is far more popular than Bill Clinton was, and Democrats want the president to share some of their political burden on what will no doubt be a tricky debate. But is Obama doing enough?

Not unlike George W. Bush when he tried to use his own political capital to sell the equally tricky task of reforming Social Security four years ago, Obama is trying to have it both ways. He wants to bank on his enormous popularity to influence the public to pressure Congress to get something done this year, but he also wants to stay above the fray. Obama doesn't want to get too specific about what he wants and doesn't want in a bill because he knows what ultimately emerges from Congress will be a test of compromise.

Case in point: Obama said repeatedly during the campaign that he'd like to set up a publicly-run health care system to compete with private insurers in hopes of bringing costs down. Obama hasn't backed down from his wish, but he refuses to say if it's a deal breaker. Asked repeatedly at a news conference last week whether he'd veto a bill without a public plan, Obama dodged the question. One reason: It's not just Republicans who are skeptical about a public plan. Many Democrats are worried about the cost, amid the backdrop of an ever-increasing budget deficit. The public is skeptical too. According to a new CNN poll, 51 percent of those surveyed support Obama's plan—a slight majority—while a majority of those polled, 54 percent, worry that health care costs will go up under a public plan. That latter number is bound to make the White House nervous because it's the exact opposite of what Obama has been arguing. He says competition would force private insurers to cut costs and will, in the end, save everybody money.

It's a guarantee that a question along those lines will come up at today's health care town hall. But how specific will Obama be? Here's the White House's dilemma: Can the president go out and try to sell the public on health care reform without getting involved in the intricate details of what the legislation will ultimately be? That's what Obama is trying to do—and will keep doing as long as he can.