Obama to Democrats: Stay with me
By: Jonathan Allen
November 14, 2013 02:36 PM EST
President Barack Obama admitted Thursday to the American people that he “fumbled the ball” in implementing the heart of the Affordable Care Act, but his immediate concern is convincing congressional Democrats to give him another chance to prove he can cross the goal line.
The new play: Offer a fix to reverse the cancellation of millions of Americans’ existing health insurance, blame insurers for the situation, put Republicans on the defensive, and — if he’s lucky — unify Democrats around a new policy that might just give them political cover.
Obama blamed himself for the problems, a clear stab at saving the law by drawing attention to his own failings — and preventing a full-scale revolt from Democrats.
“I am the head of the team. We did fumble the ball on it,” he said. “What I’m going to do is make sure we get it fixed.”
The president said he understood why Democrats who backed the Affordable Care Act at tremendous political peril were so unhappy and asked them to stick with him. The administrative fix is designed in part to keep his fellow Democrats on board.
“I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place,” Obama said Thursday at a White House press conference.
The risk is that none of this will work.
Obama might be so toxic on Obamacare that fellow Democrats reject his plan — or that enough of him do to make him look ineffectual. Since October 1, tracking the rollout of the health care law, Americans’ trust for Obama has dropped 10 percentage points, from 54 percent to an below-the-waterline 44 percent, according to surveys taken by Quinnipiac University.
Over the longer term, Democrats fear that they will get hammered at the polls in the 2014 mid-term elections because of the failure of the website at the heart of the federal insurance exchanges and public dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of policy cancellations — including the fallout of his famed claim that if people like their health care plan, they could keep it.
That could cost Democrats seats in the House and, in the worst-case scenario for Obama, allow Republicans to win control of both chambers of Congress for the final two years of his presidency.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the author of legislation to address the cancellation issue, said Thursday that the administrative fix Obama offered isn’t enough for her. While she said she was “encouraged” by Obama’s proposal, Landrieu, who is facing one of the toughest re-election fights in the country, noted that she would continue to push for her bill.
“I will be working today and throughout the weeks ahead to support legislation to keep the promise,” she said.
Behind closed doors, House and Senate Democrats have pounded administration officials over the twin Obamacare troubles and the refusal of the White House, until today, to own up to playing down their effects for several weeks even as the American people could see for themselves that the website wasn’t working and that plans were being canceled.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Thursday that he will join Republicans in a Friday vote on the measure written by Rep. Fred Upton (D-Mich.) that would allow insurance companies to offer existing coverage plans that would otherwise have been sunset because they didn’t meet the minimum-benefit standards required by the Affordable Care Act.
“I am beginning to think members of the administration haven’t read the bill,” Pascrell said, according to a source at a House Democratic meeting. “I am voting for Upton tomorrow.”
Indeed, there is little indication so far that Democrats will be satisfied by Obama’s new plan. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are still looking for a legislative solution. Insurance companies say that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement Obama’s solution. And Republicans quickly bashed it.
“President Obama’s announcement doesn’t even come close to fixing the problems that so many Americans are facing right now as a result of cancelled health care plans and skyrocketing premiums. But, it does represent the clearest acknowledgment yet that his oft-repeated pledge ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it’ was false all along,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement blasted out after Obama’s announcement.
“What makes this admission even worse is the fact that it was prompted not by the heartbreaking stories of millions of Americans, but by the private pleadings of a handful of endangered Democrats,” McConnell said.
To return to the gridiron analogy, though, Obama also began moving the goalposts for getting the website functioning smoothly. For weeks, the White House has been promising that the Website, which launched Oct. 1, would work by the end of November. But on Thursday, Obama vowed only that it would have a “marked and noticeable” improvement.
But, he self-consciously conceded after saying it would be better than it was on Oct. 1, “that’s a pretty low bar.”
What should be most troubling for the president, who dispatched White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to brief Hill Democrats on the plan Thursday afternoon, is the thunderous silence from Democrats in the aftermath of his remarks. While Republicans rushed to get out statements picking apart his plan, reporters’ inboxes were noticeably devoid of Democratic support.
And shortly after Obama spoke, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), one of the architects of Obamacare, released a statement to reporters — on the importance of trade issues.
Allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have been among the most vocal critics of the administration behind closed doors, and Pelosi said Thursday that she will put forward “belt and suspenders” legislation to complement the administration’s proposal.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) did come to the president’s defense on Thursday, calling the plan a “good step” on MSNBC Thursday afternoon as she portrayed Obama as being just as “frustrated,” “angry,” and “embarrassed,” as Democrats on Capitol Hill.
But with Democrats worried about Obama’s credibility — and their own — it may be that Obama is on the verge of giving up a “pick 6,” an interception that Republicans can return for a touchdown, rather than just a fumble. And Democrats may do the blocking for the GOP. Still, Obama is hopeful that he can turn things around.
“The game’s not over,” he said.