WASHINGTON -- Stripped of its rhetorical flourishes, President Clinton's message last night was that he is depending on a triumph of hope over experience in the American electorate. was clear he knew he was faced with a hard sell.
At one level, Mr. Clinton's televised message was extravagant. He spoke of writing "a new chapter" in American history. He compared health care reform to the taming of the American frontier and landing on the moon. He told his listeners that "our purpose is to make change our friend and not our enemy."
"It is a magic moment, and we must seize it," he told the applauding Congress and a national television audience.
But in political terms the critical elements in the speech were the reassurances on specifics, the promise of "health care that is always there," the pledge to "preserve what is right" in the existing system, the commitment that "you're covered" if you change jobs or retire or fall ill. Waving the prototype of the health card, he painted a picture of an era of improvements that would provide better care and a wide range of choices for patients -- all "without enacting new broad-based taxes." The majority would pay the same as they pay now or less, for better protection, the president asserted.
These assurances were important first because health care is an issue that touches people more directly than many that dominate the news from Washington. Voters who may not get caught up in the debate over whether they will pay 4 cents or 5 cents more for their gasoline can be expected to be far more sensitive to questions about whether they can rely on their health insurance and family doctor.
And they were important secondly because, as Mr. Clinton is well aware, the campaign against significant change is based on the argument that it would be both too risky and too costly.
More to the point, as he well realized, the context for the president's appeal is not necessarily congenial, perhaps is even somewhat forbidding.
First, there is the pervasive suspicion in the electorate about the ability of the government to do even the simple things effectively, let alone something as grand and complex as a reform of the health care system. That suspicion was evident last year in the support for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot even among voters who considered him temperamentally ill-equipped for the office. And it was apparent in a new opinion poll reported only yesterday by The New York Times and CBS News.
With the statistical margin for error factored in, the survey found the country essentially divided evenly on whether Mr. Clinton would be able to bring about "significant" reforms of health care, whether "needed change" would be accomplished and whether the new system would be "fair" to most Americans. Another poll reported by ABC News last night found a similar even split on the broad question of whether voters approved or disapproved of the Clinton plan before the speech.
There were some findings that appeared more encouraging for the White House. The New York Times poll found, for example, voters saying by 61 to 33 percent that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to achieve universal health protection. But political professionals learned long ago that the willingness to pay higher taxes for some general goal expressed in polls usually dissolves when the specific question is posed later on.
Added to the general suspicion of government is another layer of doubt about Mr. Clinton himself. After eight months in office, the president has not resolved questions about whether he is leveling with the voters. The image of "Slick Willie" is still abroad in the electorate, and so are questions about his competence growing out of the rough early months of his stewardship.
The ABC News survey did find Mr. Clinton's approval rating edging up to 51 percent, six points higher than last month, while his disapproval dropped 10 points to 41 percent. But, again, those figures are less than impressive considering the way the president has dominated the national stage in the last three weeks.
In short, the president was faced with a tough audience when he went before the cameras last night. It will be months before we know whether he made the sale.