WASHINGTON — President Obama took great pains Thursday to place the political blame on himself as he announced a supposed "fix" to the Obamacare debacle, and admitted the rollout of his signature health care law had been botched.
But buck-stops-here rhetoric aside, the president's plan — which could restart another wave of insurance plan cancellations next fall, just before the midterm elections — might have an impact on his party's 2014 prospects.
Obama's decision to allow people to keep health care plans that aren't compliant with new Obamacare regulations for another year means a similar eruption of public frustration could occur again next November, as insurance companies once again are forced to drop people from their plans. Washington And Lee law school professor Tim Jost, a noted health care scholar, suggested that the voting populations most likely to benefit from the law are not the populations most likely to vote in a midterm election. The timing, said Jost, was "perhaps not the politically smartest thing."
"It's unfortunate that has to happen in a situation where we're having elections, and where the people who are the losers are more likely to be motivated than the people who are the winners," he said. "Frankly, a lot of the winners are people who are less likely to vote than the people who are the losers."
But Jost says that tamping down Democratic concerns and buying time to get Obamacare up and running is just another part of the long, hard, and politically risky work of health care reform.
"There were are," Jost said with a sigh. "But the alternative is to do nothing and that's where we've been for a very long time."
The timing of that political risk could become a sweet spot for Republicans hoping to capitalize on the Affordable Care Act's troubles. For now, Obama allies say it's too early to make that call.
A slew of Democratic strategists outside the White House reached Thursday had roughly the same take on the next steps for their party as campaign season begins. Pointing to the fluid politics since the end of the summer — which saw the president struggle with Syria, the Republicans crater in the shutdown, and the botched rollout of the president's signature domestic legislative achievement — Democrats said the political landscape will likely look much different a year from today.
Time is on their side, many of them say.
"Look, if I could rewind time, as I'm sure the administration would say, too, we would hope that this would go a lot better and we would be better prepared and there wouldn't be the glitches because there are impacts on the American people," said one senior Democratic strategist focused on the midterms. "I'm not Pollyanna about the situation that we're in, but there's a long time until the election and I did get the sense from the president today that there's a sense of urgency in this administration and they're going to fix this quickly and they're going get it right. And I think we have to give them that opportunity."
This appears to be the view of the White House, as well. Obama has said repeatedly that improving functionality at HealthCare.gov will allow people to shop for new insurance plans that often are tangibly better than the coverage they're carrying now. Obama's apology Thursday and his comments about the roll out in general have never included questioning of the underlying policy behind Obamacare. The White House and its allies are steadfast in their belief that, eventually, the law will prove popular. Enrollment SNAFUs have stood in the way, they say, they haven't exposed real problems with the reforms themselves.
But "let's hope things turn around," is not the position any party wants to find itself in a year before an election, clearly, and not everyone is as confident that Obama's fix, and the acknowledgement that Obamacare's rollout was screwed up that goes with it, will go away by next November. Some Democratic strategists grumble that the president handed his party a big, fat campaign liability Thursday.
"I think the White House should have held the line and moved the press on," said one strategist working for Democrats up and down the ballot in 2014. "Instead he keeps apologizing and re-litigating benefits of ACA, like that argument did any good in 2010."
Democrats in the Senate were in open revolt over Obamacare ahead of Obama's press conference Thursday, an indication they were nervous about the coming electoral fight with the GOP. The White House, meanwhile, wants to avoid Republicans putting forth a legislative fix that could undermine key components of the Affordable Care Act. The White House opted for an administrative fix that Senate Democrats still don't seem thrilled with but appeared to stave off a Democratic legislative rebellion for the time being.
The divided goals of a White House looking to secure a legacy and a Democratic party facing voters is on stark display now, said one senior Democratic strategist with years observing the political process.
"This is the conflict that has existed between the presidency and the Congress forever, right? His goal is a longer term problem: It is to get out of the short-term mess, make sure he can roll [Obamacare] out again, make sure he can roll it out again successfully and end his term on a high note with a successful program," the strategist said. "Congressional Democrats' goal is fix it now so you don't have to deal with it right before your name's on a ballot. So there's a tension between those two things and I think that's what you're seeing here."
The strategist said Obama could have made life easier for his party by holding Thursday's press conference weeks ago. In the interim, Democrats have been battered by headlines about cancellation notices.
"If you're going to apologize do it early, and get it out of the way," the strategist said. Obama's apology felt "a little bit" late, the Democrat added.
Some health care policy observers say the situation Democrats now face in 2014 — the possibility of a new cancellation fight just before Election Day in 2014 — is a situation of their own making.
"The landscape is going to look so different in just four or five months. Once people get on the website and they start to realize the benefits of this law — the way they did this, they front-loaded the costs and held back on the benefits," said Jon Gruber, a professor at M.I.T. and key architect on both Obamacare and the Massachusetts health care plan on which it's based.
He called Thursday's press conference and the extension of non-compliant insurance "a shame," and laid the blame at the feet of skittish Democrats in Congress threatening to take on the cancellation problem through law if Obama didn't do it first.
"I think congressional Democrats were overreacting to a problem that would have been much less significant in a couple of months and well before the election," he said. "They just reacted too quickly to something that would've sort of naturally been resolved once the website got working."
But a year from now, Democratic candidates will have to find a way to fight the Obamacare debate on their own terms, one strategist said.
"What this does is it extends the field for Republicans to create havoc and say [Obamacare's] not working. There's a baseline right now among the public that it's not working," the strategist said. "So if you're a candidate, you can't be out there lockstep [with the White House] unless you're in a really Democratic district…you have to really have a well-thought out position about where you stand on Obamacare and the things you would have done differently."
Incumbents "can't run away from their vote," the strategist said, so they need to make Obamacare personal. "You have to highlight the things that need to be done to make this workable and find some individuals who can help tell the story in your district about how it's making their lives better," the strategist said. "Because if you have an individual who's benefiting you're having a whole different conversation than you do if its two politicians throwing lead at each other."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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