The biggest test for Sunday's HealthCare.gov deadline isn't the number of people who can use the site or how quickly the pages load for them. It's whether Democrats start to calm down.
The White House says the site will be much better but not "perfect." But it's got to be better enough to fundamentally change the political narrative that it's broken. If it isn't, nervous Democrats will get more nervous, and they'll start searching for more serious ways to distance themselves from the law they passed.
Vulnerable Senate Democrats have already flocked toward bills allowing people to stay on their existing health insurance plans, and the White House has tried to take some of the steam out of that push with a "fix" of its own. And Hill Democrats have signaled they're ready to beef up their oversight and criticism of the implementation effort if the site falls short even after Sunday's deadline.
But their tone once Congress comes back to town will be the best gauge of whether the White House has dodged a bullet—at least for the time being.
"There's a window here; I'm not quite sure how long it is. The Democratic leaders have given the White House some space to try to work out these kinks," says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The health care website is critical to Obama himself, beyond the tensions with congressional Democrats. His public-approval ratings have tumbled to new lows in a slew of recent polls, and though HealthCare.gov is by no means the only factor, the poor management of Obama's signature initiative is clearly hurting him. In a Washington Post poll earlier this month, 56 percent rated Obama a poor manager.
In many ways, the Democrats are in a bind of their own making. They all but gave up the daily messaging war over Obamacare years ago, waving off the barrage of Republican attacks and saying that all that mattered was the law working in the end.
And then it did—and didn't.
Unpopular plan cancellations went out exactly as planned, but the uproar should have been muted because it should have been easy for people to shop for new coverage on HealthCare.gov. But with all of the website glitches, there were hardly any success stories to cancel out the press coverage of people who couldn't find a new plan, or whose premiums were about to spike.
Public approval of the health care law—upside-down since it passed—has only gotten worse amid the botched website rollout. That has vulnerable Democrats scrambling for ways to show their constituents they're trying to fix the law.
"You need to explain what you're trying to fix, and you'd better be trying to fix something. If there's nothing you want to fix, there's something wrong with you," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told National Journal.
But there aren't a lot of fixes the White House can tolerate. Undoing the cancellation notices, for example, would strike right at the heart of the law and essentially make the other parts unworkable.
That's what the White House has to avoid. And that's why a better-functioning website is critical.
"It all depends on whether the glitches are worked out and the program gets up and running like it should," Manley said when asked about Democratic leaders' ability to keep holding off measures to change the health care law. "If not, add this to the list of problems."
DON'T MISS TODAY'S TOP STORIES