The five biggest political questions for the next stage of the Obamacare debate

December 4, 2013

President Obama sought Tuesday to hit the restart button on the implementation and salesmanship of his signature health-care law. After weeks of problems that plagued HealthCare.gov, Obama sought to turn attention to people helped by the law and away from talk of big technical glitches, which the administration said it mostly fixed by its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline.

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Welcome to the next phase of the health-care battle, in which Democrats are hopeful the law will live up to its billing and Republicans will look for new opportunities to attack it, while standing ready to pounce aggressively should major problems arise. Here are the five biggest political questions for the next phase of what's already been a divisive and highly-charged debate:

1. Can Obama be an effective advocate for his law anymore?

During his two campaigns for president, Obama's skills as a politician were obvious. Gifted on the stump, Obama displayed a knack for speaking that helped him excel where others could not. Often, he was his own strongest advocate. But the snags in the implementation of Obamacare, as well as the revelation that some Americans stood to lose their insurance policies despite promises otherwise, badly damaged Obama's image. As his administration kicks off its a campaign-style push to rally support for the law and spur people to sign up for coverage, the big question is how effective, if at all, Obama can be in selling the public on his plan. His Tuesday remarks were subdued, and there were no self-congratulations about the fixes to the Web site. Obama knows he needs to regain the public's trust and good will gradually. It's not going to happen overnight.

2. Will Republicans stay out of their own way?

Obama on Tuesday was eager to remind Americans  that Republicans have repeatedly sought to repeal the law. As unpopular as Obamacare is amid its rollout woes, repeal has never been a terribly popular option. Conservative efforts to tie the repeal effort to the budget and debt ceiling led to a government shutdown earlier this fall, with lots of hand-wringing from Republicans who would have preferred to see the attention focused on the problems with the law, not the futile GOP effort to shred it. If the Web site problems fade from the forefront, the policy discussion will dominate once again. The question then becomes whether conservatives will restart their crusade to repeal the law. Repeal is still a popular option in the party's conservative base, and any signs of being too soft practically invite criticism from the right. That's already presented a challenge for congressional candidates trying to find the right balance in their rhetoric.

3. Will congressional Democrats begin to fall in line or move further away from the law?

October and November were not fun months to be a congressional Democrat facing reelection in a red or swing state or district. And, boy, did it show. Democratic senators were proposing new fixes to the law while more than three dozen Democratic House members defected to vote for a Republican plan to alter Obamacare. The tone of these Democrats will tell you all you need to know about how the law is received in the coming months. What the White House needs is a unified party with a consistent message regarding the health-care law. That's not what they have now.

4. Will enrollment bolster the Democratic case or the Republican one?

If enough Americans aren't enrolling in plans via the exchanges, it will fuel Republican arguments that the law is a disaster. If enrollment is robust, it will bolster the administration's case that people want the new coverage options. Young people in particular are a crucial demographic. Without a high enough percentage of young and healthy individuals in the pool, the system won't work as designed.

5. Will the GOP embrace an alternative?

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wouldn't commit Tuesday to voting on a GOP-drafted health-care bill next year. The Democratic retort against GOP criticism of Obamacare has often been that Republicans aren't offering  a viable alternative. If frustration with the health-care law continues and the public begins to demand a Plan B, the onus will be on the House GOP to offer one. The fact that Boehner isn't committing to one right now suggests the GOP believes its best play is to keep the focus on the Affordable Care Act.

Fixbits: 

That was fast. Charlie Crist's newly minted campaign manager, Bill Hyers, has left the Democrat's campaign for governor of Florida.

Former vice president Dick Cheney said he was "surprised" that Mary Cheney and her wife publicly attacked Liz Cheney over gay marriage.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) will announce next month whether he is running for governor.

Boehner hired immigration policy analyst Rebecca Tallent, who has worked for Republicans who have supported a path to citizenship.

The campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has fired an aide for demeaning tweets about Hispanics.

Democrat Heather Mizeur will opt into Maryland's public-financing system in her campaign for governor, a rarity in the state.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 finance director is in talks to join Priorities USA, the Democratic super PAC.

Bill Clinton said he was only trying to help Obama when he said the president should live up to his remark that all Americans should be allowed to stay on their insurance plans.

It turns out there just may be a Hillary Clinton movie after all.

Must-reads: 

"With visit to London, Sen. Marco Rubio tries to burnish foreign policy credentials" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

"Fast for immigration reform near the U.S. Capitol enters new phase" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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