President Obama opened his press conference Thursday with a bold proclamation that "the repeal debate is and should be over." But his declaration of victory in the long-running war over his health care overhaul did not last long. Only five questions later, he was forced to offer a softer, almost wistful acknowledgement of the reality that there are many more battles to wage and the debate could go on for years.
It was one of the fastest backtracks at any presidential press conference. From optimist to realist in less than 45 minutes. Obama the Optimist cited the sign-up numbers for the Affordable Care Act, the revised numbers for premium costs, and the good news on the expected life of the Medicare trust fund. Almost in awe, he declared, "This thing is working." But Obama the Realist admitted the Republican opposition has been unchanged by every statistic he cited. The GOP, he suggested, is going through the stages of grief. "Anger and denial ... we're not at acceptance yet," he said, though he added hopefully that his critics may get there "at some point."
Even as the press conference was going on, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas helped make that point, tweeting, "The repeal debate is far from over." Criticisms of the law followed quickly from both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner. Even the president told reporters that the debate may not end "until after November because it seems as if this is the primary agenda item in the Republican political platform."
But by the end of the press conference, when reporter David M. Jackson of USA Today pressed him on how long the law will be "a political football," the president was setting an even longer timeline. "That's going to take more time. But it's not for lack of trying on my part," he admitted. He reached back for a historical analogy, noting that opponents of Medicare fought for years after that law's 1965 passage. "So we've been through this cycle before. It happens each and every time we make some strides in terms of strengthening our commitments to each other and ... we expand some of these social insurance programs. There's a lot of fear-mongering and a lot of political arguments and debate, and a lot of accusations are flung back and forth about socialized medicine and the end of freedom."
Eventually, he said, the public realizes that the law works and "then we move on." But he acknowledged, "I don't know how long it's going to take."