Obama tells Democrats: Defend my law
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and Carrie Budoff Brown
April 17, 2014 07:05 PM EDT
President Barack Obama has laid out the blueprint he thinks his party should follow on Obamacare as the midterms approach: “forcefully defend and be proud” of the law — and then move on, hitting Republicans for Washington dysfunction and inaction on the economy.
The question now is whether Democrats will listen.
“I don’t think we should apologize for it, I don’t think we should be defensive about it. I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell,” Obama said at a brief White House press conference Thursday afternoon.
“If Republicans want to spend all their time talking about repealing a law that’s working, that’s their business. I think what Democrats should do is not be defensive but we need to move on and focus on the things that are really important to the American people right now,” Obama said.
The president’s advice reflects what his aides have been saying privately for weeks — including in conversations to anxious Democratic campaign officials: They believe voters are ready to move on, and that they can use their economic fairness argument to boost their base’s turnout in a way that can counter the Republicans’ base appeal on Obamacare repeal.
That gamble, Democrats acknowledge, will very likely decide whether they lose the Senate and fall further behind in the House in November.
They’ve been begging the White House — and Obama — to do more publicly in defense of the law, particularly since Obamacare enrollment exceeded expectations and reached the 7 million mark on the March 31 deadline.
Thursday, after announcing that applications still coming in have now put enrollment in insurance exchanges established under the law over 8 million, Obama said he agrees.
Candidates still need to make their own decisions on what works best in their individual district or state, a White House official said after Obama spoke. But if they are inclined to defend the law, they have more ammunition to work with than they did only several weeks ago, the official said.
“The president is absolutely right,” DNC communications director Mo Elleithee said. “Despite every piece of data showing that the ACA is helping millions of Americans and surpassing expectations, Republicans are living in an alternate reality. They are obsessed with repeal, despite the fact that Americans overwhelming disagree with them. That’s a contrast that every Democrat should feel good about making.”
Republicans, though, mocked Obama’s calls to move on.
“I’m sure he would like that, given how wildly unpopular it is and how destructive it has been for millions of Americans,” said Brendan Buck, spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Responding to Obama’s line that, “I think we can all agree that it’s well past time to move on,” the National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted, “No, we can’t.”
Obama, calling the continuing Republican pressure for repeal “strange” and “curious,” spelled out the pivot he believes he and his party should make: “the 50 or so votes Republicans have taken to repeal this law could have been 50 votes to create jobs and investing in things like infrastructure or innovation. Or 50 votes to make it easier for middle-class families to send their kids to college. Or 50 votes to raise the minimum wage, or restore unemployment insurance that they let expire.
“The repeal debate is and should be over,” he said.
Immediately, top White House antagonist Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted “The repeal debate is far from over. #FullRepeal” — a comment which was immediately sent out by the Democratic National Committee’s rapid response press operation with the sarcastic header, “the GOP health care plan.”
But few Republicans joined in the attacks Thursday as Obama announced the new numbers — which, when taken together with those who’ve remained on their parents’ insurance, signed up for expanded Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program or bought plans outside the marketplace, put the total number covered under the new law closer to 14 million.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) focused on the latest Republican attack on Obamacare since the enrollment numbers started going up: The numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“How many of those ‘enrollees’ are actually enrolled, having paid their first month’s premium? How many paid their first month’s premium but not their second or third? How many were previously uninsured? How many were forced off their previous coverage they had and liked?” McCarthy said in a statement.
Obama said he’s skeptical of the polls that show low support for Obamacare, saying that those numbers don’t tell the whole story either: The general opinion of the law, he said, “is attached to general opinions about me or about Democrats and partisanship in the country generally.”
“My view is that the longer we see the law benefiting millions of people, the more we see accusations that the law is hurting millions of people being completely debunked, as some of you in the press have done, and the more the average American who already had health insurance sees that it’s actually not affecting them in an adverse way, then it becomes less of a political football, which is where I want it to be,” he said.
While Democratic pollsters tend to agree with that assessment, they do worry about the low ratings Obama registers on his handling of the economy, and personally.
Still, there’s some evidence that Democrats are starting to believe that with the right framing, they can now safely sell Obamacare to midterm voters.
A super PAC supporting Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has been one of the more outspoken critics of the law, released an ad last week featuring a breast cancer survivor who was able to get insurance despite having a pre-existing condition.
“I was lucky I beat cancer, but the insurance companies still denied me health insurance just because of a pre-existing condition,” Keller said in the ad by Put Alaska First. “I now have health insurance again because of Mark Begich. Because he fought the insurance companies, so that we no longer have to.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, responded to Obama’s remarks and announcement of the 8 million number by circulating an online petition calling on supporters to thank the president for Obamacare.
“It’s been a long road, and President Obama’s faced ugly obstruction from Republicans every step of the way,” the fundraising email reads. “But he kept on fighting to make this incredible day a possibility.”