President Barack Obama made a rare appearance before the press on Thursday for a simple reason: because he had something to brag about. Eight million Americans have signed up for Obamacare, his signature legislative achievement, through the state and federal insurance exchanges, a figure that far exceeded everyone’s expectations.
For once, the unpopular universal health care program, which suffered a catastrophically botched launch and handed on a plate a rallying issue to the president’s opponents, had given the president something to boast about.
Overall, the administration’s statistics show 14 million people are set to get insurance under the law. In addition to the 8 million who bought insurance through the exchanges, 3 million young adults are now covered by staying on their parents’ plans. A further 3 million enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, between October and February.
Of course, the 8 million statistic doesn’t account for the people who switched plans through the exchanges, compared with those who became insured for the first time. Nor do they account for those who, despite signing up, won’t pay their premiums and will lose coverage.
Still, after months of ridicule, bad press, a disastrous website rollout and dire predictions of collapse from gleeful Republicans, the newest numbers mean Obamacare’s supporters can allow themselves a sigh of relief.
Over the next few months, Democrats hope that damaging stories about dropped plans and website errors will be replaced by heartwarming stories of Americans finally getting the health coverage they need.
And the good news doesn’t stop there. The Congressional Budget Office announced that the law will cost $100 billion less to implement than originally predicted. In short, people are signing up and the country is saving money. After months of being on the defensive, Democrats at last have something to crow about.
But the newfound success of Obamacare does present a quandary for Democrats as they face November’s midterm elections, when they have little hope of winning the House back from the GOP and could even lose their working majority in the Senate: Should they run on Obamacare or not?
The president gave his take on that question in his press conference Thursday. “I don’t think we should apologize for it, and I don’t think we should be defensive about it,” Obama said, referring to his fellow Democrats. “I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell.”
Obama then offered an example of how Democrats can try to flip the tables and go after the GOP’s calls for repealing Obamacare: If the Republicans were to win Congress and the White House, what would they put in its place?
“What the other side is offering would strip away protections from those families and from hundreds of millions of people who already had health insurance before the law passed but never knew if the insurance company could drop them when they actually needed it, or women who were getting charged more just because they were a woman,” Obama said. “I’m still puzzled why they’ve made this their sole agenda item when it comes to our politics. It’s curious.”
Obama said he thought that after five years the American people are tired of endless debates about the Affordable Care Act, and he urged politicians to switch their attention instead to two issues voters want them to focus on: the economy and jobs.
This seems to be the middle road Democrats will hope to walk between now and November: point to Obamacare’s successes while pivoting to issues they think voters want to hear about. The positive new numbers from the health exchanges will help Democrats do just that.
“I think Obamacare will be part of the conversation this election cycle, and the new numbers are definitely helpful proof points as Democrats look to tout its success and challenge its critics,” said Democratic pollster Julie Hootkin.
Democrats have already started talking up economic issues, part of a midterm-elections strategy that centers on the theme of economic fairness through policies like equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage.
“I think ultimately Democrats understand that the voters are focused on other things, not just health care,” Hootkin said. “Democrats are where voters are when it comes to making the law work, not making it fail, but also addressing other key issues—the economy and jobs.”
Hootkin said Democrats will remind voters of the popular parts of the health care law, like letting young adults stay on their parents’ plans or preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to those with a pre-existing condition.
Even though Republicans’ doomsday predictions haven’t come true, Democrats are still stuck with the fact that the law remains profoundly unpopular. A Gallup poll last week found 43 percent of Americans approve of the law, while 54 percent disapprove.
But Democrats can take heart in a few silver linings in the poll numbers. Take the number of Americans who believe the health care law will hurt them in the long run: It is 32 percent, according to Gallup, down from a high of 42 percent last year. Meanwhile, the figures for those who believe the law will neither affect nor help them, 42 percent and 24 percent, respectively, are increasing.
These may not be great numbers for the Democrats, but they show the public is slowly starting to come down from its peak of opposition to the law.
Republicans on Thursday pounced on Obama’s call for Americans to move on from the furious Obamacare debate. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, fired off a defiant tweet: “The repeal debate is far from over. #FullRepeal.”
With a little over six months to go before the polls change Washington’s political landscape for the next two years, Democrats hope that the numbers favoring universal health care will prove Cruz wrong.