President Barack Obama offered some of his most direct advice yet Thursday to congressional Democrats running for re-election in 2014: Embrace Obamacare.
“Democrats should forcefully defend that millions of people … we’re helping because of something we did,” Obama said in the White House briefing room after announcing that 8 million Americans had signed up for private coverage under the law, blowing past projections. It was in response to a question asking whether it was time for Democrats to start campaigning on Obamacare.
“I don’t think we should apologize for it. I don’t think we should be defensive about it,” he continued. “I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell.”
It is a signal that the politics of Obamacare — at least as perceived by the Democratic Party — might be starting to change. Groups backing vulnerable Democratic candidates have gone up with unabashedly pro-Obamacare ads. Strategists in some of those crucial Senate states have urged candidates to “start making the case for Obamacare.” Even Republicans have suggested that their party could be making a mistake if it expects anti-Obamacare sentiment to carry its candidates to victory in the fall.
Multiple Democratic strategists have told TPM recently that they believe the conventional wisdom that the law will doom Democrats might be overstated and suggested it could be an asset if their base becomes more enthusiastic about the law after being demoralized during the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout.
“The Affordable Care Act thing, I think, is still open on how people go on this,” Stan Greenberg, a top Democratic pollster, told TPM last month. “The question is: Do you lean into it? Is it mostly let’s get it fixed? Or is it that these are serious transformative changes that have to happen? That’s still being sorted.”
“If your goal is to turn out your base, my guess is that many people are going to lean into the benefits.”
The new 8 million figure should give the Democratic base more reason to be excited, as Obama’s comments Thursday suggested. The president also spoke to those voters in the middle, noting multiple times that it was “well past time to move on” from the Obamacare debate and chastising the GOP for its unrelenting focus on repeal. Polling has found that most Americans are tired of debate over the law and want to focus on other issues.
It isn’t a guarantee that vulnerable candidates will follow the president’s advice. After all, several have said they don’t plan to campaign with him and some have released TV ads that highlight their distance from the White House.
The law is still underwater nationwide and particularly in the states that seem likely to decide control of the Senate. Republicans are going to keep shouting it down because poll after poll shows it motivates their voters. The fundamentals are in their favor because GOP voters historically turn out in midterms and the Democrats are defending seats in tough states.
But the narrative might not be as clear-cut as it would have seemed in the doldrums of October when Obamacare was floundering. Senior administration officials told reporters earlier this month that a defense of the law, paired with a clear message of what its repeal would mean, will be their strategy for the fall. If it can motivate Democratic voters in a state like North Carolina, where turnout is key, and save one or two Senate seats — that could be enough to keep control of the chamber.
That helps explain why the President would publicly urge his compatriots to “forcefully” defend the law, something that was unthinkable just a few months ago.