Nelson Mandela Gives Obama Relief from Health Care Critics

Attending the state funeral in South Africa of the father of South African democracy has changed the political weather back home. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Nelson Mandela’s death has a silver lining for President Obama: a news story to blot out the running sore of the Obamacare rollout. Instead of endless complaining and criticism about the website the headlines have shifted to all Mandela all the time.

That has interfered with the plans of Republicans in Congress for the last week before the holiday recess to continue their barrage of opposition to Obamacare.

Pictures of the president rubbing shoulders with world leaders at the Mandela state funeral in Pretoria and Soweto are set to eclipse an appearance by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who must testify on Wednesday for a hearing entitled “PPACA Implementation Failures: What’s Next?” and a hearing hosted by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on the Affordable Care Act the following day.

Already, the press has descended on South Africa, for the series of elaborate and colorful funeral services for Nelson Mandela, the founder of democratic South African who died last week at age 95.

From NBC’s Brian Williams to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the major news anchors are already in South Africa and will be sending back hours of footage of the Mandela story for the next few days. The Sunday talk shows, where Beltway types like to unload their talking points for the week, instead focused on Mandela.

NBC’s Meet the Press dedicated almost the entire show to remembering the South African leader. Even Fox News Sunday restricted its critical coverage of Obamacare to a single segment.

But will the reprieve last? “Anytime attacks get less attention, the president is better off,” said a Democratic strategist who asked not to be named. But he warned that even if the media is distracted for a while, the death of Mandela and the pomp and circumstance of the funeral was “unlikely to put a damper on partisanship.”

“The death of a foreign leader, no matter how well respected or now important to world history, isn't likely to have much impact on our domestic politics,” the strategist said.

Back in Washington, tensions are high this week as Republicans and Democrats try to nail down a budget agreement before the December 13 deadline. Meanwhile, Democrats are mounting a campaign to defend the health care law now that the website is working fairly well, and to shame their Republican colleagues into extending an emergency unemployment benefits program that will expire on December 28, leaving 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans without any source of income unless Congress acts.

Republicans are being presented with a twofold problem before they escape for their Christmas and New Year break: Not only is the media paying less attention to their Obamacare attacks, but the spotlight instead is on the anti-Mandela sentiment that still exists among ultraconservatives in America.

The press has dredged up the Republican Party’s historic opposition to Mandela and the anti-apartheid group he led, African National Congress, including support for the apartheid regime by politicians like President Ronald Reagan and Vice President Dick Cheney, then a member of the House of Representatives.

Of course, there were Republicans who also battled their party on the issue, including former speaker Newt Gingrich, who praised Mandela on his Facebook page and on his website, only to receive brickbats from the conservative grassroots.

This backlash on the right -- including responses to Gingrich like, "Newt, I was rooting for you to win the primaries and become the next president; please tell me your [sic] joking!! Mandela was a commie murderer!!" – runs counter to the general mood of Americans and is unflattering to the Republican Party as they try to rebuild the party after the 2012 elections and taking the blame for the government shutdown in the fall.

For Obama, who has admired Mandela for decades, the funeral is a genuinely moving event. As the first American president to be descended from an African, his attendance in South Africa has a poignancy that rings true well beyond the African-American community here.

In the Machiavellian world of highly partisan politics, events like this can help the president limp to the finish line of a rough and bruising fifth year in office. As the jobs numbers suggest the economy is recovering and as the health care law begins to function as intended, Obama may return to the White House looking forward to better approval ratings in the new year.