President Barack Obama’s one-year reprieve for Americans losing insurance and rare display of contrition were meant to quell the political crisis engulfing Democrats over the botched roll-out of his health-care law.
It didn’t completely work.
Democrats running for re-election in 2014 -- pressed to defend their support for a law that’s less popular by the day -- continued to push for changes, even as House Republicans vowed to proceed with a vote tomorrow on their own measure.
Obama’s fix, announced at a White House news conference today, “doesn’t go as far as I’d like,” because it would only last one year, said Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The public was told “you could choose between the individual plan you have and the plans that were on the exchange” without any time limits, he said.
Senator Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat facing re-election in a state Obama lost by 14 percentage points in 2012, said he prefers legislation he has co-sponsored that extends current plans for two years. Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose state Obama lost by 17 percentage points last year, signaled she will continue with her legislation to ensure people could keep health insurance plans they liked under the Affordable Care Act.
Obama’s action “was a great first step, and we will probably need legislation to make it stick,” Landrieu said. “We made a promise and we didn’t keep it.”
Democrats are bracing for attacks in 2014 campaigns of having perpetuated a false pledge to voters about the health-care law. Obama attempted to deflect such accusations, saying lawmakers who promised people would be able to keep their insurance plans “were making representations based on what I told them and what this White House” indicated, “so it’s not on them -- it’s on us.”
Obama said he’s aware the law’s debut has already hurt Democrats.
“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats,” he said. “I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them, rather than easier for them.”
Obama made his announcement under pressure from House Democrats who are facing a vote tomorrow on a Republican measure to let Americans keep through the end of 2014 insurance plans that don’t meet the health-care law’s requirements.
By proposing a similar move administratively, the president sought to limit defections by allowing Democrats to argue the measure isn’t necessary.
That part of his objectives may have succeeded. Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said at most 20 to 25 of his colleagues probably would vote for the Republican plan, now that Democrats see the “administration has taken some action,” and “turned a corner” by accepting responsibility.
There will be “a substantial reduction” in the number of Democrats backing Upton’s bill as a result of Obama’s announcement, Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings said in an interview today.
Republicans dismissed the president’s action as one designed to insulate his party rather than help Americans.
“It appears this is little more than a political response designed to shift blame rather than solve the problem,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said in a statement.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said the move wouldn’t give Americans certainty.
“The only way to stop Obamacare-related cancellation notices from being sent this year or in the future is to fully repeal Obamacare,” he said in a statement.
Three times during his 64-minute news conference, the president said the health-care law’s failures are “on me.”
Obama’s repentant posture comes as his reputation is also suffering. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted Nov. 6-11 found his job approval rating at 39 percent, its lowest level of his presidency, and a majority for the first time say Obama is not honest and trustworthy.
The survey showed congressional Democrats have lost a 9-percentage-point lead they enjoyed among voters at the start of the partial government shutdown last month; respondents are now evenly split on whether they would vote for a Republican or a Democrat for Congress.
While Obama may have relieved some of the political pressure on Democrats with today’s announcement, he has to do more to repair the damage, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic polling expert.
“He mitigated some of it, he needs to keep on it and mitigate it more,” said Lake, the president of Lake Research based in Washington, D.C. “What I heard the president say is, ‘I’m going to be part of fixing it,’ but what I also heard Democrats say is they’re not going to wait for the president -- they’re going to go ahead and fix it themselves.”
Lake said Democrats, who continue to enjoy greater credibility on health-care issues than Republicans according to public polls, need to exploit that advantage by being more aggressive than they have been in making their case on the law. That includes blaming insurance companies for its shortcomings.
“I don’t know why we’re not taking a tougher stand with the insurance companies -- you’re not going after Mother Theresa, you’re going after Darth Vader,” Lake said. “We should say, ‘They sold people policies that they knew they were going to have to discontinue, this is wrong, and we’re not going to let it stand.’”
Merkeley, who’s seeking a second term next year, appeared to be following that approach today, telling reporters that the insurance industry must “honor their side of the bargain.”
“It requires not only the government side, but it requires insurance companies to keep offering the polices and not cancel them on folks,” Merkley said. “I’ll be certainly calling on insurance companies in Oregon to continue to extend the individual plans that citizens currently have.”
Democrats said Obama’s move today was favorable in light of the political challenges they’re facing.
“It helps people, and that’s important,” Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California said when asked whether the president had taken pressure off her colleagues who face re-election next year. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough received an “excellent” reception from Senate Democrats he briefed at the Capitol today, she said.
“It’s a good move in the right direction,” said West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
Some Republicans are seeking to use the latest developments as a cudgel against Democratic candidates. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House campaign group, issued news releases calling House Democrats co-conspirators who gave Obama a “blank check” to enact the law, and saying they should “answer for the higher premiums and canceled plans” their constituents are facing.
Democrats declared themselves unbowed.
“I’m eager, anxious and proud to run on this in 2014,” Mo Eleithee, communications director at the Democratic National Committee, said in a memo. He maintained Republicans want to kill the measure “because they know once people begin to enjoy the benefits that come with a better and more affordable health care system, they won’t want to give them up.”