Just five days into the relaunch of the new and improved HealthCare.gov, it’s probably too soon to say if the website is working properly in terms of technology. The initial numbers look good. Although important back-end problems remain, the site has handled close to a million users some days, and more people signed up Tuesday than in all of October. But we don’t need the stats to know the website is working in at least one important way: politically.
Here’s how you can tell:
1) Republicans have mostly stopped attacking the website.
Two sets of House Republican talking points shared with National Journal bare this out. Tuesday’s email, sent from the office of GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, barely touches on the website, while Thursday’s doesn’t mention the site at all.
The first email instructs Republican members of Congress to highlight four of “Obama’s broken promises.” The first three “promises” relate to coverage problems, such as policyholders’ rates going up. Lawmakers are then encouraged to attack the White House pledge that the website would be ready by Oct. 1, but not target the website itself.
Thursday’s memo, on the other hand, make no reference to the website at all. Instead, it focuses on a new poll showing that young Americans have soured on Obamacare, and encourages members to “host a town hall on a college campus in your district with millennials about Obamacare’s burden.”
Another indication that Republicans were leaving the website behind came Wednesday, when the campaign arm of Senate Republicans revived Mitt Romney’s attack on Democrats that Obamacare cuts Medicare by more than $700 billion. Beyond being a slippery claim, it’s also an old one. It was a centerpiece of Romney’s campaign and was even used in the 2010 midterms. PolitiFact called it “a talking point that won’t die” — and that was over a year ago.
It’s a safe bet that Republicans wouldn’t be dusting off old material if the website were still giving them fodder for fresh attacks.
2) Democrats have calmed down.
As my National Journal colleagues Sam Baker and Elahe Izadi reported, Democratic lawmakers, who seemed at wit’s end with Obamacare just two weeks ago, have generally relaxed, at least for now. “This has not been fun, the last month or so. But it’s getting better, even the last few days,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a Nevada TV station Wednesday.
Indeed, the White House has moved into sales mode on the health care law, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and others have transitioned — if tepidly at first — into offense.
“We’re going to make sure that Democrats win on Obamacare in 2014. Anybody who thinks that Democrats are going to lose on Obamacare in 2014 are wrong,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, who added that his liberal grassroots group will use Republicans’ opposition to the health law against them next year.
3) The media has started to move on.
In mid-November, the Washington media narrative was entirely dominated by problems with the website. The health law looked like an abject failure with little chance of recovery.
Since the website relaunch Sunday, coverage has been more diverse, with a major focus other issues like Iran, and more nuanced when it comes to Obamacare. “It’s now clear that news organizations are beginning to take seriously the idea that Democrats are not uniformly on the defensive over Obamacare,” Greg Sargent notes.
Plus, the overall volume of coverage on the website is down. According to a Nexis search, U.S. publications have wrritten 901 stories about HealthCare.gov in the five days since the Sunday relaunch, compared with 1,611 during a five-day period in mid-November at the height of the panic over the law. And the pace of coverage may be slowing, from a peak of 272 stories written Tuesday to 178 Wednesday and 54 Thursday, as of publishing.
It’s too early to tell if that trend will hold, but right now on Memorandum, an influential site that ranks news stories based on how much people are linking to them, there’s just a single reference to HealthCare.gov.
None of this is to say that the website is out of the woods technically. The back-end problems are almost more important, if less visible, than the user-side issues (though the Health and Human Services Department said this week that they fixed a glitch responsible for 80 percent of those errors). And new problems could emerge.
But the political-media panic has subsided, for the moment, and President Obama may just recover after all.