Obama Pivots, Democrats Panic on Health-Care Rollout

While Obama tried to stop the political bleeding over the botched ACA rollout, his party was racing to reverse hemorrhaging support among voters before 2014.

11.15.13 10:45 AM ET

The primary rule of politics and the primary rule of medicine are always the same: First, do no harm. But on Thursday, President Barack Obama scrambled to stop the political bleeding among congressional Democrats in full panic over the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

With the 2014 elections on the horizon and millions of Americans getting notices that their health-insurance plans have been canceled because of the new law, Democrats have become furious that the legislation many consider their crowning achievement is fast becoming a political liability because of its chaotic implementation by the administration.

“It’s an absolute disaster and a disgrace, quite frankly,” said Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ). “We never should have had this happen, this series of issues. It’s just absurd.”  

Barber said he thought a lot of Democrats were as concerned as he, and he was right.  

“This has been a complete embarrassment, no matter what party you are,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL). “The focus needs to be how you get this right.”

With no concrete plans from the White House by Wednesday, a slew of Democrats began taking matters into their own hands. Several, including Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), introduced legislation to change or delay pieces of the law, while many more said they would vote Friday for a Republican measure from Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) dubbed, “If You Like It, Keep It.” Upton said his bill would let people keep the insurance they had been dropped from in recent weeks, despite the president’s promises that they could keep their plans if they liked them.

Obama addressed worried Democrats directly on Thursday, announcing a one-year extension for the health plans that had been canceled, and acknowledging the trouble that the botched rollout is causing many in his party, who passed the bill at his behest and are now suffering the political consequences for the way he has overseen its implementation.

“I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them, rather than easier for them to continue to advocate for the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place,” Obama said.

But the president’s assurances carry far less weight today on Capitol Hill than they did before the website went down, the cancellations went out, and Obama himself seemed again and again to be as surprised as the next guy that the legislation wasn’t living up to his expectations.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will offer their own bill Friday to address the recent cancellations, explaining that rather than a sign of distrust of the president, their measure should be thought of “like a belt and suspenders,” two solutions for the same problem. “I can’t decide between a belt or suspenders. I want to do both!” she said.

Obama’s announcement also didn’t stop Sen. Landrieu from moving forward with her bill, which mirrors Upton’s “If You Like It, Keep It” promise, or freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) from pushing forward on her bill to delay the individual mandate and its penalties until 120 days after the Government Accountability Office certifies that is fully operational.  

As angry and frustrated as Democrats appeared Thursday, Republicans were equally giddy at their good fortune that the rat-a-tat-tat consistency of the rollout’s embarrassments have given them what the GOP could not give themselves: a chance of picking up seats in the 2014 elections.  

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“President Obama’s numbers are nearing George Bush’s lows of 2006,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who chairs House Republicans’ political arm for the midterm elections. “I think that’s why you see President Obama scrambling. Clearly, it reflects how absolutely terrified House and Senate Democrats in competitive districts or states are.”

Rep. Nick Rahall represents one of those competitive districts in West Virginia, where Americans for Prosperity is running television ads against the veteran congressman, tying him to the ACA.  

“It’s going to have its negative repercussions and I’m going to have to respond in the proper time in the proper way,” Rahall said.  

Many Democrats and their staffers said that the only way to turn their sliding political fortunes around is to fix both the website, which continues to have significant accessibility problems, and the unintended consequences coming from the law itself.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) said a crisis of confidence is beginning to take hold in both areas.

“Members are very much concerned that this is ever going to work, many of them. And they want to show their constituents that they feel their pain,” Moran said. “I think most of them will go along with the Democratic leadership [opposing the Upton bill], but the Democratic leadership is in a bind, too. The president isn’t up for reelection but the Democratic caucus are up for reelection next year and this is not helpful.”

While defections from swing-district Democrats can always be chalked up to a tight election year, the dissent that should be more concerning for the White House is that of loyal Democrats like Rep. Raul Grijalva, who worried out loud—not about his political future (he won his 2012 election by 21 points), but about the basic welfare of his constituents, many of whom are the poor Spanish speakers the bill was intended to help, but who have never been able to access to become insured.

Grijalva won’t vote for the Upton bill, but he said Democrats’ patience with the president and his administration is wearing thin.

“It took so long the get where we are that the honeymoon is not over yet.  But the sunset is upon us,” Grijalva said.  “From a policy standpoint, I can defend it.  But it will come to a point where I have to defend my constituents, and I will.”