President Obama long has argued that debates over the size and scope of government — of which health care has become the most important example — should not be seen as a question of bigger government vs. smaller government, but rather whether proponents of activist government are able to demonstrate that the federal government can be both smart and effective.
With controversy continuing over other elements of the law, the decision to delay enforcement of the employer mandate for a year clearly heightens the stakes for the president and his allies to prove the critics wrong and demonstrate that they can make bigger government work.
The setback for Obama’s signature domestic achievement also points to another problem for the White House. It could serve to reinforce perceptions of an administration that is beset by controversies, adrift and struggling to find its equilibrium.
On that issue, administration officials take sharp exception. “There have been a number of controversies that have gotten a lot of attention in the press, but if you step back and look at what the president has accomplished in the first six months, it’s pretty compelling,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said.
She pointed to the fiscal cliff negotiations of December that resulted in raising taxes on wealthy Americans, to the Senate passage of immigration reform (although the measure faces more resistance in the House), to the president’s newest initiative on climate change.
Political interpretations of the employer mandate decision broke into rival and predictable camps Wednesday. Opponents of the health-care act saw it as ratification that the law is fatally flawed. “It is a step in the disintegration of what will prove to be an unaffordable, unmanageable disaster,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in an e-mail.
Even so, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum and an administration critic, called the move “deviously brilliant.”
“Democrats,” he wrote in a post Tuesday night, “no longer face the immediate specter of running against the fallout from a heavy regulatory imposition on employers across the land. Explaining away the mandate was going to be a big political lift; having the White House airbrush it from the landscape is way better.”
Republicans have been planning to make the health-care law a centerpiece of their 2014 campaign against the Democrats and saw Tuesday’s decision as more fodder for their candidates. “The ads in swing races are being written as we speak,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist.