Mission accomplished… or mission impossible?
This question may be on the minds of skittish congressional Democrats up for re-election after the White House doubled down on making the Affordable Care Act the centerpiece of its mid-term strategy during its press conference/pep rally last week in the Rose Garden.
A schism may have opened between the White House and some of those incumbent Democrats when the cheering subsided because they know the ACA remains profoundly unpopular and is unlikely to recover by November.
They also know the Democratic majority in the House that passed the 2,300-plus-page monstrosity was run out of the Beltway. And that was long before the disastrous rollout made cynical GOP prognosticators look like they knew what they were talking about. It would be fair to say that the 12 Democrats in the Senate facing re-election this year who voted for the ACA — each of whom will be portrayed as the 60th vote by their opponents — weren’t exactly high-profile participants in the event.
The rally around the ACA was designed by the White House political team to energize its base. At the same time, however, the fallout from the law continues to alienate many independents who hold the key to statewide U.S. Senate races.
The scene in the Rose Garden competed with daytime soaps for viewership since the networks reportedly refused to honor the White House request to give up an hour of valuable primetime to what was essentially a political rally. It was an unsettling spectacle because, in many ways, it was a microcosm of the problematic aspects of the Obama Administration’s interactions with the American public and its elected representatives.
For example, President Obama, eschewing the separation of powers, declared at the rally, “The debate over repealing this law is over. The (ACA) is here to stay…” Although the Office of the President is immensely powerful, no holder of that office can legitimately make such a claim when there are two other branches of government, the fourth estate and diverse outside interest groups to deal with on policy.
In this spirit of unilateral ubiquity, Obama had, according to some counts, changed the ACA over 20 times through executive action to adapt to his administration’s failures to adhere to guidelines that a Democratic Congress and he, himself, had passed into law. These actions, as well as vaguely written sections of the ACA, have opened the law up to potential constitutional challenges in the federal courts.
As is now customary with the ACA process, there were no press questions at the rally — pre-approved or otherwise. It was disappointing, but no longer stunning, that many major media outlets were content to merely parrot the White House press release without further examination.
Ironically, this lack of rigor achieved the opposite of what would be expected. While natural supporters of the ACA were gratified, the continued confusion and unanswered questions surrounding the law — accentuated by dubious assertions at the rally — increased skepticism and resentment among many likely swing voters. They have a tough time taking the president at his word after promises like “You’ll get to keep your doctor” and “You’ll get to keep your insurance plan” were laid to waste days after the program’s launch.
The ACA mid-term strategy makes sense for the president, however, because at this stage it is his legacy — for better or for worse. Obama has no incentive to give an inch, and expects the rest of his party to follow suit come hell or bad poll numbers.
Obama, like his predecessors, is cognizant of his place in history. This was apparent during his speech at the rally, where — setting aside the irony of his statement — he admonished those who disagreed with his policy: “In the end, history is not kind to those who would deny Americans their basic economic security.”
Keep in mind that this is a president who is trying to bring the nation into the mid-terms via bold policy initiatives like extending unemployment benefits and raising the minimum wage.
It’s also an Administration in its sixth year that is yet to have a foreign policy success of any magnitude that can provide another leg for Obama’s legacy stool. Its Russian “reset” and the president’s hot-microphone message for Vladimir Putin that he’d have more flexibility to withdraw U.S. missile defenses in Europe after re-election seem like a distant memory of a failed policy initiative from another era.
The Administration has not presented a coherent set of foreign policy principles — an Obama Doctrine — when faced with challenges in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The White House is desperately seeking a foreign policy success to hang its hat on, but Secretary of State John Kerry has hit a recent roadblock while trying to bring a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict before the end of the second term.
Thus, in truth Obama had nowhere to go but to double down because the ACA is far larger in significance to his presidency and legacy than the mid-terms. It’s about defining himself as president, and re-defining the party in his image. As a consequence, like many misguided, loyal legislators before them, some congressional Democrats simply won’t be able to get out of the way of the tide in November.
So, the ball is now in the GOP’s court. But it still has a long way to go to convince the electorate that it has real alternative solutions to address the problems plaguing the cost and delivery of healthcare and the nation’s stagnant economy. The ACA debacle and the White House strategy of keeping it front-and-center, however, provide the GOP with the electorate’s ear for at least the foreseeable future. They’re listening, but the GOP must have something worth telling them.