White House Making Life Miserable for Democratic Lawmakers, Reformers

If you support Obamacare, you can't be happy with President Obama's team.

President Barack Obama speaks at Temple Emanu-El November 6, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. (National Journal)

Rather than implementing the Affordable Care Act, a law with the noble goal of helping millions of uninsured Americans secure health insurance, the White House is dissembling. Rather than governing, President Obama is campaigning. Every day, it gets worse. The latest:

On Wednesday, senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tweeted his take on the Virginia gubernatorial election narrowly won by Democrat Terry McAuliffe over right-wing lightweight Ken Cuccinelli: "Cuccinelli's profile was based on defeating [Obamacare]; if he couldn't get big bounce out of recent troubles; hard to see GOP strategy working in 14."

Setting aside the factual weaknesses of his argument, I replied to Pfeiffer: "True only if White House manages to implement #ACA. Big 'if.' Maybe focus less in spinning it?" To which Pfeiffer responded: "I don't disagree, has to be implemented and performance of website is unacceptable, fixing is everyone's top priority."

The problem is that managing political fallout, rather than honesty and competence, seems to be the White House's priority. A lot has been written about Obama promising that Americans could retain their health insurance if they like it (including here), as well as the president's attempt to reinvent history about his broken pledge (here). Caught red-handed, the White House shifted to a new tactic: blaming insurance companies.

"The provision in the law was the manifestation of the assurance that if you have a plan you want to keep, you can keep it," White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week. "Insurance companies that chose to strip away benefits from existing plans in the interim, that canceled existing plans in the interim, they took away that grandfathering opportunity.  And that's a reality."

Not quite. As The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote in his fact-check column, "First of all, the administration wrote the rules that set the conditions under which plans lose their grandfather status. But more important, the law has an effective date so far in the past that it virtually guaranteed that the vast majority of people currently in the individual market would end up with a notice saying they needed to buy insurance on the Obamacare exchanges. The administration's effort to pin the blame on insurance companies is a classic case of misdirection."

Misdirection--the president and his aides specialize in that, and they're deploying the tactic against their own team now. Many Democratic lawmakers are interpreting McAuliffe's closer-than-expected victory as a sign that voters might punish them in 2014 for Obamacare. Some vented their concerns directly to Obama on Wednesday, the same day he flew to Dallas to campaign for his health care law. Others went public, including Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who blasted the administration's "mismanagement," and Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who proposed changes to the law.

According to exit polling, 53 percent of voters in Virginia opposed the health care law. Of those, 81 percent voted for Cuccinelli, who made Obamacare a battle cry in the campaign's closing days. Obama's team dismissed the concerns, pointing to exit polls showing that just 27 percent of Virginia voters identified health care as the most important issue in the race and, of those, Cuccinelli won 49 percent to McAuliffe's 45 percent. Obamacare "is not as toxic as [Republicans] want people to believe," said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

True, the GOP has an ax to grind--and no off-year election results can be extrapolated to predict the next cycle's results. But Elleithee's quote and Pfeiffer's tweet are a repudiation of fellow Democrats who have good reason to worry about Obamacare. At a time when Obama desperately needs allies (his approval ratings are dropping), the White House is insulting its friends.

They may not be exit-poll experts, but Democratic lawmakers know the stakes. They know what happens to their party--in 2014 and beyond--if reforms sought for decades get suffocated by government incompetence. They know what happens to Obama if he keeps squandering his credibility. They know what happens to them--in their reelection campaigns--if the White House doesn't shift from spinning to fixing.

For supporters of health care reform (disclosure: I'm one of them), the trend lines are bad. Every day, it gets worse.