Obamacare Makes Republicans Look Good

So sayeth John Dickerson, not without reason:

Let’s go back in time. During the debate over the law, the president had a difficult balancing act. He had to argue that the status quo in health care was a disaster while at the same time not threatening the status quo for those people who were happy with their health care or who feared it would get worse under his changes. A CBS poll at the time showed that people were quite afraid that whatever the president did, it would hurt their plans. Sixty-nine percent worried that the ACA would affect the quality of their care. Almost three-quarters thought it would limit their access. There was a lot of pressure on the president to send the message that nothing would change.

In the summer of 2009, the president began to tailor his message to assuage the fears of these very people. If you liked what you had, it wasn’t going to change. That was a broad and simplified claim and the press called him on it. The president could never make that promise. He didn’t have the power to keep insurance companies from changing their policies in response to the law. Nevertheless, the president continued to make the claim in the desperate attempt to sell his unpopular plan.

This was a time bomb embedded in the legislation. It might have been mitigated if the website had worked. If it had been humming as administration officials so fervently hoped, there would be no broader context for debates about whether the president is living up to his promises. And in this specific instance, the flourishing of the site might have offered loads of examples of people in that individual market whose plans had only changed for the better. Of course, that’s not what happened.

The president’s message about his signature law has always been: It gets better, I promise. That was always an uphill battle. The benefits of the law were strung out over time, making it harder for people to recognize a payoff. “Trust me” claims clash with people’s mistrust of politicians and government programs.

When the website doesn’t work and the promises of 2009 and 2010 are revised, questions of credibility infect everything the administration says. This can lead to a death spiral as administration officials make bold assertions to distract from the current challenges. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett tweeted Monday night: “FACT: Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.” Of course the insurance companies wouldn’t have had to change plans if it hadn’t been for Obamacare. This is spinning—which is to be expected from a president’s defender—but its legalistic dissembling seems particularly weak in light of the president’s initial promises. (It isn’t the only time the administration has claimed a FACT recently about health care that isn’t one).

About the only thing that I would quibble with is the claim that “[t]he benefits of the law were strung out over time, making it harder for people to recognize a payoff.” This isn’t quite accurate; the Obama administration frontloaded benefits like being able to stay on one’s parents’ insurance until the age of 26, and not being denied for pre-existing conditions. If the website gets fixed and the exchanges start working as promised, it won’t be difficult at all for the public to notice that things are going well.

The danger, of course, is that the website won’t get fixed anytime soon, and the problems with the website will impact the working of the rest of the plan. If that happens, the Obama administration will lose whatever credibility it may still have, Republicans will have a tremendously powerful political weapon at their disposal, and whatever hopes there may be for a “liberal moment” to exist and take hold in American politics will have been dashed.