President Barack Obama has weighed into the health care fray only occasionally—and always from a distance—even as his eponymous signature piece of domestic legislation comes under heightened threat.
It is not for lack of want. Aides and advisers say that the former president is, like all Democrats, troubled by ability of Republican leadership to keep repeal efforts alive. One official said he did not expect GOP lawmakers to get even this far. But he is wary of engaging in a highly visible way, even in this critical hour, for fear that it would backfire politically.
“We are acutely aware that opponents of the Affordable Care Act would like no better foil than him,” said one Obama advisor. “We don’t want to make this any harder than it is. Allowing opponents to make this about Obama’s legacy undermines the debate about the actual impact of the law.”
For now, Hill Democrats say they’re comfortable with Obama at a distance. Though the party has been unable to stop repeal-and-replace efforts at critical junctures—the most recent coming in the form of a narrowly-lost vote to start debate in the Senate—the prospect of turning the debate into a Obama-v-Trump narrative is viewed as counterproductive.
“I think [Obama] faces a dilemma of potentially becoming the issue and he wants to avoid that distraction,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told The Daily Beast, off to the side of a Capitol Hill rally featuring individuals whose health care is dependent on Obamacare-related coverage. “He may be at the emotional breaking point… but I think he is intensely rational and deliberative and he has thought through what would happen if he became the image of this fight and he has decided it is better that the image be the kind of people we have here.”
There have been two components to date to Obama’s post-presidential involvement in the repeal and replace debate—one public, the other private. When the Senate introduced its health care legislation in late June, he blasted the “fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation” in a Facebook post. Since then, he’s been quiet.
Behind the scenes, the 44th president has kept close tabs on the debate, discussing legislative strategy with Democratic members of Congress and hosting occasional conference calls with administration alums who are involved on the issue. Should the legislation make it through the Senate and into conference committee with the House, associates say his presence may grow. Obama is already slated to hit the campaign trail this fall for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, during which health care reform will undoubtedly come up. There is also talk of getting Obama more involved in fundraising efforts for health care advocacy organizations.
But there are no plans to have the former president go much beyond there, whether by delivering a major speech or giving interviews on the topic. Lawmakers say there would be only marginal utility to doing so since, as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) put it, the public already “knows the president’s views.”
“I think what is most important is that people who are here, people who are organizing across this country, are being heard,” Gillibrand added. “They are going to make a difference.”
But there is also a larger fear; mainly, that Obama’s involvement would reactivate his political opponents and green light on-the-fence Republicans to side with party leadership. The goal for Democrats, at this juncture, is simply to get more lawmakers to vote no. With the party fully united against repeal-and-replace legislation, it’s not entirely clear how the former president can help with that. It’s not inconceivable that he may hurt.
“I am more than willing to criticize Obama for floating above it all- just not this time,” said Jim Manley, a longtime advisor to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “[A]nything he says Trump will just uses as a way to distract from his efforts to take away health care for millions of Americans.”