The Debate Over Obamacare Is Hardly Over

President Obama wanted to end the debate over his health care law, but even he acknowledged GOP opposition could last years.

National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 17, 2014, 2:08 p.m.

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.”

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