By: Laura Meckler
April 1, 2010
PORTLAND, Maine--President Barack Obama directed his health-care sales pitch to some of his fiercest critics on Thursday: small businesses.
On his first trip to Maine as president, Mr. Obama offered the packed crowd a defense and explanation of the new law. He singled out Bill Milliken, owner of Market House Coffee and Maine Beer & Beverage Corp. The president said Mr. Milliken can't afford to give part-time employees more hours and health insurance. Starting this year, he'll qualify for a 35% tax credit toward what he spends on premiums, Mr. Obama said.
"This tax credit will make it easier for an employer like Bill who wants to do the right thing by his workers," Mr. Obama said. The White House said as many as four million small businesses may be eligible for the tax break.
The president didn't mention aspects of the measure that concern business, including a requirement that many employers with 50 or more workers offer insurance or pay a fine.
Some select groups of Americans are getting special attention from the president as he works to sell the new law and focus on the changes that take place this year. That includes sick children, who insurers won't be able to reject; young adults, who will be allowed to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they are 26; and senior citizens, who will get more prescription-drug coverage through Medicare.
It's a tough sell to many seniors, who oppose the measure in greater numbers than the general population. The senior lobby in Washington, AARP, supported the legislation and is helping sell it now.
There was a bit of political business at hand as well on Thursday, as Mr. Obama ventured to the home state of Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, centrists who have worked with the White House in the past and whose support Mr. Obama could need in coming months.
Neither senator voted for the health-care bill when it reached the full Senate, though Ms. Snowe spent months negotiating with Democrats. In Maine, many voters support their Republican senators but also support the new law. Democrats hope they will feel pressure to vote with the majority on future issues.
Both senators were invited to come with him to the event, but both declined, the White House said.
Even in victory, Mr. Obama displayed frustration, and some amusement, with Washington pundits who have noted polls showing continuing opposition to the health measure.
"It's only been a week!" Mr. Obama said. "Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm? You planted some seeds and came out the next day and looked, 'Nothing's happened! There's no crop! We're gonna starve! Oh no! It's a disaster.' "
To promote the overhaul, the Internal Revenue Service is sending millions of postcards to small businesses that may qualify for the tax credit, and the agency is alerting tax professionals to the credit through its email mailing list and at its tax workshops.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses, the small-business lobby, which was among the bill's sharpest critics, said business owners made 200,000 calls to members of Congress during the final week of the legislative debate asking them to oppose the bill.
"Throughout the health-care debate, we couldn't have been clearer how damaging the cost of this bill will be to America's small businesses and the economic recovery of this country," said a statement Thursday from David Clough, a Maine-based lobbyist for the NFIB.
For some businesses in the liberal Portland area, it was an easy sell. "It would be nice to have a program available and structured so small businesses like myself can compete with Starbucks," said Jeremy Pelkey, owner of Bard Coffee. He said he might offer insurance to his seven employees if the tax credits are generous enough but doesn't know enough details. "We're looking for options."