By Sam Baker - 07/21/13 10:00 AM EDT
The White House is working to get back on offense in the debate over ObamaCare, after a surprise delay in part of the implementation knocked its message off course.
President Obama touted the law’s benefits in a White House speech Thursday, emphasizing a provision that is already in place and heralding positive news about the cost of insurance policies sold through the law’s insurance exchanges.
“If the folks who have been trying to make political hay out of this thing, if they had some better ideas, I've already told them I'm happy to hear them. But I haven't heard any so far," Obama said. "What I've heard is just the same old song and dance. We're just going to blow through that stuff."
The problem for Obama is that his administration has already blown through some key implementation deadlines, including its recent decision to delay for a year the law’s employer mandate.
Before announcing the delay, the White House had settled into a narrative that seemed to be working relatively well. As Republicans criticized the healthcare law, Democrats stuck to a mantra that sought to legitimize as much as promote it.
The standard line from Obama and his allies was that the law had been passed by Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, and then affirmed again by Obama’s reelection.
But the decision to delay the employer mandate cut against that narrative of inevitability, allowing Republicans to argue that the law is collapsing on its own — and creating a double standard that rewarded business at the expense of individuals and families.
"The law isn't wonderful, it's a train wreck, and you know it, I know it, and the American people know it," Speaker John Boehner said this past week. "Even the president knows it, that's why he proposed delaying this mandate on employers."
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane acknowledged that the delay had knocked the White House off course, but said the administration will likely to be able to regain the offensive on ObamaCare.
"You’d have preferred to avoid this. On the other hand, you potentially go into the midterms now in a situation where people are getting savings, and you’re not going to have the potential peril of some small businesses or restaurant owners making people part-time,” Lehane said.
Lehane, who recently published a book about political crisis management, said the White House was at least able to get the news of the delay out on its own terms and provide an explanation that framed the decision as a show of flexibility.
Republicans, though, found an easy talking point: The administration had handed an exemption to big businesses, while leaving in place the law’s requirement for individuals to purchase coverage.
House Republicans were able to peel off 35 Democratic votes for a bill to delay the employer mandate, and 20 Democrats agreed to delay the individual mandate, as well — a potential sign that Democrats in tough 2014 races are worried about the politics of ObamaCare.
That could change, though, if the administration keeps capitalizing on the good news it gets from the states, Lehane said.
Obama’s appearance last week dovetailed with news that insurance premiums in New York would be roughly 50 percent lower under ObamaCare, compared with the cost of similar policies available now. California provided similarly positive headlines when it filed its rates.
According to a White House fact sheet this week, premiums in 11 states that have filed their 2014 rates are an average of 18 percent lower than expected.
“I think if people begin to see their healthcare bills go down, those things are going to begin to hit … it gives the Democrats a real chance to be on the offensive on this issue,” Lehane said.
Obama tried to recapture that frame on Thursday, casting the delay votes as “refighting old battles” in the face of evidence the law is working.
Republicans still clearly see the issue as a winner in 2014.
If nothing else, the delay in the employer mandate turned the issue back on Obama, away from Republicans’ inability to agree even on a bill that would have cut one part of ObamaCare to pay for another.
GOP campaign committees have aggressively targeted vulnerable Democrats over the past two weeks, since the delay was announced, and have chided the administration for delaying a potentially problematic issue until after the midterms.
House Republicans are also planning more anti-ObamaCare votes.
But as the controversy over the mandate delay fades, and if more positive rate filings come in from big states, Democrats are hoping those House votes will play more into their hands than the GOP’s.
Lehane said Republicans have consistently over-played their hand on ObamaCare.
"They’re either Sonny Corleone or they’re Fredo Corlenoe — they don’t seem to get that they should be Michael," he said.