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As critical phase nears, Obama stumps for healthcare law

Get Covered America buttons are seen during a training session in Chicago, Illinois September 7, 2013 before volunteers canvas a Chicago nei
Get Covered America buttons are seen during a training session in Chicago, Illinois September 7, 2013 before volunteers canvas a Chicago nei

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama visits a local college on Thursday to promote his signature healthcare program as it nears a critical enrollment phase, even as the law faces stiff political opposition and a wary public.

In remarks at Prince George's Community College in suburban Maryland, Obama will seek to focus attention on the sign-up period for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, popularly called "Obamacare." Starting on Tuesday, Americans who lack insurance will have six months to shop online for health coverage.

The administration's goal is for the registration period to pull in 7 million uninsured people, including 2.7 million adults aged 18 to 35.

"President Obama will talk about a key cornerstone of what it means to be middle-class in America: having access to affordable healthcare that you can count on," a White House official said. "The president will cut through all the noise coming out of Washington and speak directly, in plain and honest terms, about what the Affordable Care Act means for consumers."

The president is also facing a Tuesday deadline for Congress to approve a federal budget and avoid a government shutdown and a mid-October date to raise the nation's borrowing cap or face a default.

Republicans have sought to make cutbacks to the health law a condition for both steps, but the president has refused to allow Obamacare to be used as a bargaining chip in fiscal disputes.

Republicans, conservatives and business groups have made delaying or scuttling the health program a top priority. They have launched an aggressive advertising program slamming Obamacare as tantamount to socialized medicine, saying it will raise costs for businesses, eliminate thousands of jobs and make already insured people pay more.

The White House and Democrats in Congress say Obamacare will provide millions of Americans with health insurance that they otherwise could not afford, while potentially pushing down healthcare costs.

The administration is rolling out what it hopes will be a forceful public education campaign, drawing on popular figures such as former President Bill Clinton and social media promotions targeted at young adults.

The administration's efforts coincide with an expected $1 billion marketing initiative from health insurers, hospitals and health systems, as well as public outreach steps by groups ranging from churches, charities and the AARP advocacy group for seniors to the Walgreen and CVS pharmacy chains.

Obama faces an uphill struggle to convince skeptical Americans to use the online tools to sign up for healthcare coverage.

A Real Clear Politics average of polls conducted over three weeks up to Tuesday indicated a 38.7 percent approval rating for Obamacare, versus a 52 percent disapproval rate.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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