White House Making Life Miserable for Democratic Lawmakers, Reformers

If you support Obamacare, you can’t be happy with President Obama’s team.

President Barack Obama speaks at Temple Emanu-El November 6, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Nov. 7, 2013, 4:01 a.m.

Rather than im­ple­ment­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act, a law with the noble goal of help­ing mil­lions of un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans se­cure health in­sur­ance, the White House is dis­sem­bling. Rather than gov­ern­ing, Pres­id­ent Obama is cam­paign­ing. Every day, it gets worse. The latest:

On Wed­nes­day, seni­or White House ad­viser Dan Pfeif­fer tweeted his take on the Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al elec­tion nar­rowly won by Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe over right-wing light­weight Ken Cuc­cinelli: “Cuc­cinelli’s pro­file was based on de­feat­ing [Obama­care]; if he couldn’t get big bounce out of re­cent troubles; hard to see GOP strategy work­ing in 14.”

Set­ting aside the fac­tu­al weak­nesses of his ar­gu­ment, I replied to Pfeif­fer: “True only if White House man­ages to im­ple­ment #ACA. Big ‘if.’ Maybe fo­cus less in spin­ning it?” To which Pfeif­fer re­spon­ded: “I don’t dis­agree, has to be im­ple­men­ted and per­form­ance of web­site is un­ac­cept­able, fix­ing is every­one’s top pri­or­ity.”

The prob­lem is that man­aging polit­ic­al fal­lout, rather than hon­esty and com­pet­ence, seems to be the White House’s pri­or­ity. A lot has been writ­ten about Obama prom­ising that Amer­ic­ans could re­tain their health in­sur­ance if they like it (in­clud­ing here), as well as the pres­id­ent’s at­tempt to re­in­vent his­tory about his broken pledge (here). Caught red-handed, the White House shif­ted to a new tac­tic: blam­ing in­sur­ance com­pan­ies.

“The pro­vi­sion in the law was the mani­fest­a­tion of the as­sur­ance that if you have a plan you want to keep, you can keep it,” White House spokes­man Jay Car­ney said this week. “In­sur­ance com­pan­ies that chose to strip away be­ne­fits from ex­ist­ing plans in the in­ter­im, that can­celed ex­ist­ing plans in the in­ter­im, they took away that grand­fath­er­ing op­por­tun­ity.  And that’s a real­ity.”

Not quite. As The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Glenn Kessler wrote in his fact-check column, “First of all, the ad­min­is­tra­tion wrote the rules that set the con­di­tions un­der which plans lose their grand­fath­er status. But more im­port­ant, the law has an ef­fect­ive date so far in the past that it vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed that the vast ma­jor­ity of people cur­rently in the in­di­vidu­al mar­ket would end up with a no­tice say­ing they needed to buy in­sur­ance on the Obama­care ex­changes. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­fort to pin the blame on in­sur­ance com­pan­ies is a clas­sic case of mis­dir­ec­tion.”

Mis­dir­ec­tion—the pres­id­ent and his aides spe­cial­ize in that, and they’re de­ploy­ing the tac­tic against their own team now. Many Demo­crat­ic law­makers are in­ter­pret­ing McAul­iffe’s closer-than-ex­pec­ted vic­tory as a sign that voters might pun­ish them in 2014 for Obama­care. Some ven­ted their con­cerns dir­ectly to Obama on Wed­nes­day, the same day he flew to Dal­las to cam­paign for his health care law. Oth­ers went pub­lic, in­clud­ing Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska, who blas­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “mis­man­age­ment,” and Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado, and Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, who pro­posed changes to the law.

Ac­cord­ing to exit polling, 53 per­cent of voters in Vir­gin­ia op­posed the health care law. Of those, 81 per­cent voted for Cuc­cinelli, who made Obama­care a battle cry in the cam­paign’s clos­ing days. Obama’s team dis­missed the con­cerns, point­ing to exit polls show­ing that just 27 per­cent of Vir­gin­ia voters iden­ti­fied health care as the most im­port­ant is­sue in the race and, of those, Cuc­cinelli won 49 per­cent to McAul­iffe’s 45 per­cent. Obama­care “is not as tox­ic as [Re­pub­lic­ans] want people to be­lieve,” said Mo El­leithee, a spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee.

True, the GOP has an ax to grind—and no off-year elec­tion res­ults can be ex­tra­pol­ated to pre­dict the next cycle’s res­ults. But El­leithee’s quote and Pfeif­fer’s tweet are a re­pu­di­ation of fel­low Demo­crats who have good reas­on to worry about Obama­care. At a time when Obama des­per­ately needs al­lies (his ap­prov­al rat­ings are drop­ping), the White House is in­sult­ing its friends.

They may not be exit-poll ex­perts, but Demo­crat­ic law­makers know the stakes. They know what hap­pens to their party—in 2014 and bey­ond—if re­forms sought for dec­ades get suf­foc­ated by gov­ern­ment in­com­pet­ence. They know what hap­pens to Obama if he keeps squan­der­ing his cred­ib­il­ity. They know what hap­pens to them—in their reelec­tion cam­paigns—if the White House doesn’t shift from spin­ning to fix­ing.

For sup­port­ers of health care re­form (dis­clos­ure: I’m one of them), the trend lines are bad. Every day, it gets worse.

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