President Obama said Democrats should run on Obamacare. So, will they?

The last seven days have been the best seven days for the Affordable Care Act in quite some time -- and maybe ever.


President Barack Obama talks to reporters about the situation in Ukraine and gives a positive assessment on his health care law, the Affordable Care Act, at the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 17, 2014.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Obama announced last week that more than eight million people had signed up for insurance via the federal marketplace, a surge of last-minute activity that not even the most optimistic administration allies could have hoped for. And, then there was the news from the Congressional Budget Office that the health-care law will cost $100 billion less than projected over the next decade.

Amid a (rare) victory lap on the law, Obama was asked whether the news of the past week meant Democratic candidates should run on the law this fall rather than away from it. His answer?  "I think Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud of the fact....we're helping because of something we did."

So, should Democrats listen? Or is this Obama giving the only answer he can to a question about his signature legislative accomplishment in the first six years of his presidency? (Imagine the uproar if Obama had said anything other than that the law is basically good and Democrats can and should be proud of it?) We put that questions to a number of Democratic strategists -- and to a few GOP consultants -- doing work in the coming midterm elections.

"If you voted for Obamacare, you need to defend it and sell it," said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic Capitol Hill operative and now a lobbyist in D.C. "Running away won't work and being defensive [is] a bad idea.  Sell it and sell it hard."

That sentiment has long been the private position of the White House. The idea that any incumbent Democrat can run from the law, they insist, is pure folly: No matter what he/she says about the law -- or even whether or not they voted for it -- won't matter. Republicans will attack the incumbent as a tool of Obama and a supporter of the ACA. Instead, Elmendorf argued, Democrats should embrace the popular parts of the law -- as a super PAC supporting Alaska Sen. Mark Begich did in this ad.

There is also a belief in Democratic political circles that while Obamacare was once a silver bullet-type issue for Republicans, those days have now passed -- and the GOP doesn't realize it yet.

"I think the ACA is not a winning issue for the Republicans," said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. "Not only is opinion about the ACA improving, but a majority of people oppose repeal."  Added another prominent Democratic strategist:  "We’re playing defense not offense on ACA but we can succeed doing so."

Republican operatives, not surprisingly, disagree.

"They HAVE to run on Obamacare," said Glen Bolger, a partner in the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. But, he added, that is a very bad thing.  "The losers (people who have to pay more, often a lot more) will turn out and vote," argued Bolger. "Their votes are going to sting Democrats, because hurting the middle class has a way of kicking you in the butt.  The winners from Obamacare – those who did not have health insurance but now do – are not typically midterm voters. "

Here's Bolger's argument made in chart form.

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 12.57.21 PM

While the overall numbers for the law amount to a tossup -- 48 percent of registered voters support it, 50 percent oppose it -- the passion gap is readily apparent. Almost four in 10 voters who oppose the law do so strongly while less than three in ten support the law equally strongly.

"Some will benefit, many will not and be very angry about what they are now having to deal with," insisted Republican pollster Lunda Divall.  "They will vote."

If you buy that the November midterm is shaping up as battle between the party bases -- and midterms traditionally are that -- then Democrats may have no choice but to run toward the health-care law this fall and 1) hope that the Democratic base closes the enthusiasm gap on the issue between now and November and 2) that independents, such as they are, like the "it's a good law with some problems that need to be fixed" argument rather than the "it's all bad" case Republicans are making.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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