The Threat of Democrats Turning Against Obamacare

The president's own party may begin calling for repeal if the law's problems don't get resolved soon.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There's nothing that Democrats want more than to change the subject from Obamacare, despite DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz's protestations otherwise. Congressional Democrats don't want to be dealing with a drip-drip of news about premiums going up, patients losing their doctors, and a broken health care website as they face angry voters in 2014. Hillary Clinton doesn't want this issue lingering past the midterms. She hitched her presidential prospects to President Obama's wagon and she's not about to let someone else's crisis damage her presidential ambitions yet again, Even Vice President Joe Biden, who called the health care law a "big f---ing deal," didn't mention it once at a fundraiser last week for North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan.

Unless the HealthCare.gov website miraculously gets fixed by next month, there's a growing likelihood that over time, enough Democrats may join Republicans to decide to start over and scrap the whole complex health care enterprise. That became clear when even Obama, to stop the political bleeding, offered an administrative fix that threatened the viability of the entire individual exchange market to forestall a House Democratic mutiny the next day. It was as clear sign as any that the president is pessimistic about the odds that the federal exchange website will be ready by the end of the month, as promised.

More than anything, politics is about self-preservation, and the last two weeks provided numerous examples of how public opinion has turned so hard against the law that even its most ardent supporters are running for the hills. It's not just red-state Democrats, like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, distancing themselves from the law. It's blue-state senators like Oregon's Jeff Merkley and New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen—and top blue-state recruits like Michigan's Gary Peters and Iowa's Bruce Braley, who voted for GOP legislation Friday that the White House said would "gut" the law. Nearly every House Democrat in a competitive district joined with Republicans to threaten the law. Without a quick fix, those ranks will grow.

This tsunami of blowback, which built in just the last month, is unsustainable for Democrats over the long haul. The president isn't just losing his skeptics from the chaotic Obamacare rollout but his allies who stood to gain from the law's benefits—namely Hispanics, whose approval of the president has dropped more than any demographic subgroup since the problems began. The simplest solution—if only to stop the bleeding—is to get the website fixed. (When former DNC Chairman Howard Dean's proposal is to hire tens of thousands of young phone operators to sign people up for insurance—straight out of a Jerry Lewis telethon—as he suggested on "Morning Joe," it's clear the website problems are really bad.).

Would President Obama sign a death warrant on his own signature legislation? That's almost impossible to imagine, but it's entirely reasonable that he may not have a choice in the matter. Consider: Despite the White House's protestations, 62.4 percent of the House voted for Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton's legislation (261-157), just shy of the two-thirds necessary to override a veto. And consider the House Democrats who voted against Upton's bill but nonetheless released harsh statements criticizing Obamacare. Maryland Rep. John Delaney, in a statement, wrote: "The problem we have currently is that the Affordable Care Act is not working." Added Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick: "The stunning ineptitude of the ACA marketplace rollout is more than a public relations disaster. It is a disaster for the working families in my Arizona district who badly need quality, affordable health care." Add them into the mix -- the dozens more members who were poised to split with the president until his face-saving press conference—and you've got all but the hardy Obama loyalists who could end up bolting if the political environment doesn't improve.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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