For two months, while HealthCare.gov underwent major technical repairs, President Obama and Democrats floundered: The president was increasingly apologetic for the stalled components of the Affordable Care Act, while congressional Democrats proved readier than ever to work with Republicans to change the law.
On Tuesday, however, Mr. Obama declared his unwavering support for the law: "This law is working and will work into the future," he said, standing beside Americans who have benefited from Obamacare. "We're not going back."Now that the "user experience" on HealthCare.gov is improved, the president and his supporters are returning to the mission they had hoped to embark on two months earlier: Selling the law and the new marketplaces to an unconvinced public. Their task now, however, is much harder. Since the website's botched launch, public support for the already-controversial health law took a turn for the worse, as did the public's overall confidence in the president and congressional Democrats. On top of that, it remains to be seen whether the website will, in fact, function properly from this point forward.
"It's unfortunate we're in a situation where we're depending on a website functioning properly, but that's just the facts," Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told CBSNews.com. That said, he added, "I'm confident that once the glitches are all worked out and the program is running like it should, this will be a political win for the administration and a big win for the American people."
Turning Obamacare into a "political win" will be an uphill climb at this point: a CBS News poll conducted in mid-November showed that just 31 percent of Americans approved of the law, while 61 percent disapproved. Approval of the law had reached its lowest point yet recorded in CBS News polls and had dropped 12 points in just one month. The poll showed that fewer Americans view Mr. Obama as honest and trustworthy and fewer Americans approved of congressional Democrats' job performance.
The botched HealthCare.gov rollout provided a remarkable opportunity for Republicans to recover politically from the two-week government shutdown in October, and they have no plans at this point in letting up on their attacks against the health law.
"President Obama and House Democrats are attempting to do in 3 weeks what they couldn't do in 3 years: convince voters that ObamaCare isn't a massive failure," Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm, said in a statement Tuesday. "As it raises premiums and cancels plans, we look forward to talking about the law even more than Democrats do."
The Republican-led House continues its scrutiny of the law Wednesday with no less than four hearings: The Oversight Committee is holding a hearing to consider "The Roll Out of HealthCare.gov: The Limitations of Big Government," while a subpanel in the Energy and Commerce Committee is exploring the law's impact on Medicare Advantage. Meanwhile, the Small Business Committee is holding a hearing titled, "The Health Care Law: The Effect of the Business Aggregation Rules on Small Employers," while the House Ways and Means Committee will consider "the challenges of the ACA on the health care system and explore ways to mitigate the adverse impacts of the law on the American people."
Manley contends that once people are actually getting coverage on the new Obamacare marketplaces next year, the GOP criticisms of the law will be exposed as empty rhetoric.
"We didn't do too well in the battle over anecdotes," he said, referencing the many stories that have come out in recent months about Americans being dropped from insurance plans that no longer meet minimum coverage standards set by Obamacare. "But now that people are beginning to get access to health care, that's how Democrats are going to win this debate."
Lawmakers knew from the start that some Americans would be dropped from their plans in the private market (as a portion of consumers are every year), but they assumed that they'd be able to get new coverage via Obamacare -- the website problems complicated that.
Republican strategist and pollster Randy Gutermuth of the firm American Viewpoint doesn't see that problem going away -- if anything, more problems with the law will surface, he said.
"The abysmal rollout of the website is just a precursor to what's going to happen," he said, arguing "there's a reason all this implementation was delayed until [Mr. Obama] was reelected in the first place."
Mr. Obama tried to appease those losing coverage by allowing insurers to extend existing policies for another year, but Gutermuth said such temporary "patchwork fixes" will only force Democrats to confront these problems closer to the 2014 election.
In the meantime, the president is focusing on the successful elements of the health care law -- such as the provision allowing young adults up to 26 years old to stay on their parents' health insurance plan -- that Gutermuth argues "would be part of any repeal or replace plan a Republican Senate would propose."
Mr. Obama on Tuesday did his best to blunt the Republican calls to repeal or replace the law. "We're not repealing it as long as I'm president," he said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, similarly suggested such efforts were going nowhere in the coming months. When reporters asked him whether the GOP-led House would vote on an Obamacare alternative next year, he said, "We'll see."