President Obama held a rather extraordinary press conference today, to defend his embattled Obamacare website rollout and announce an administrative fix to the larger Obamacare program of people who have had their insurance cancelled. The big unanswered question after the presser was done: will it be enough?
Obama was as chastened as he's ever been in one of these meet-the-press events. Because it is football season, he deployed on multiple occasions a seasonal sports metaphor, saying "I fumbled the ball." This will, no doubt, be the lead soundbite from the press conference as well as the lead headline in tomorrow's papers. "Fumbled" will be added to "evolved" in the Barack Obama historical political lexicon from this point on, one assumes.
But, as I said, the key questions will all begin with the same phrase. Let's examine a few of these "Will Obama's press conference be enough..." questions.
Will it be enough to make Republicans love Obama and work constructively with him from now on?
Well, no. No, it will not.
Will it be enough to stop the relentless Obamacare criticism?
No, it will not do that, either. More on this at the end.
Will it be enough to stop the insurance cancellations?
Probably not. Or, more accurately, "not all of them." It may help a certain portion of those who have gotten cancellation notices in the mail, but how big a portion that actually is remains to be seen. It will be dependent on the goodwill of both state insurance commissioners as well as the insurance companies themselves. So, even a best-case scenario has to be "it will stop some cancellations, but it will almost assuredly not stop all of them." One would think that if this proportion is high enough, people will credit Obama with helping most people affected, but this would be wrong. He has no benefit of the doubt, currently. Therefore, even if it helped 98 percent of the people with cancellation notices, Obama will not get much credit for this. Think about it -- the whole cancellation scandal is only happening to five percent of the population now, and how loud is the noise? If even one person still winds up cancelled, the media will focus on them, not the others positively affected by the change.
Will it be enough to redirect the public's rage to the insurers themselves?
Or, more broadly, "the state insurance commissioners and the insurers?" Well, possibly to some degree, but probably not completely. As in the answer above, we will still see people interviewed on the news who now not only got a cancellation letter after being promised by Obama it would not happen, but they'll now also not be able to get their policy reinstated after Obama promising them a second time. In other words, the policy has a large degree of risk that it'll backfire on Obama, if even one disgruntled consumer still exists. It's quite likely that more than one will exist, and the media will diligently sniff these people out and put them on the air.
Will it be enough to calm Democrats' fears?
Maybe. That should really be "Democratic officeholders in the House and Senate" -- the ones who are nervously contemplating breaking politically with Obama right now. All of the House is up for re-election next year, as is one-third of the Senate. Republicans have already telegraphed quite loudly that they're going to make Obamacare rage the central part of their 2014 campaign (see: Virginia's governor's race and the analysis afterwards on the Right). Vulnerable Democrats are already contemplating passing bills which go further than what Obama announced today in terms of guaranteeing continued coverage for all. But these votes are fast approaching, meaning there will be little time to gauge Obama's new plan's effectiveness before Democrats have to vote on an alternate plan. So while Obama's action today may help to stem the tide, it likely won't stop it entirely -- at least, not before some votes are held.
Will it be enough to stop these bills?
Again, a qualified maybe. What some are predicting now is that a bill written by a Republican will pass in the House and a bill written by a Democrat will pass in the Senate. Knowing how tough it is these days to get the two houses to conference and agree on anything (see: budget, immigration), this will likely mean the legislation will be delayed long enough to see whether the president's fix is working or not. If it is seen as a failure, then there likely will be a bill placed on Obama's desk of some sort. If it seems to be working, then it will be an excuse to stall the two bills into just being a political exercise (to be used as fodder in the upcoming campaign). It's impossible to tell which way it'll go, at this point. The deadline will likely be (roughly) mid-December -- if no compromise bill has passed by then (or at least been generally agreed to by both sides) then that will likely be the end of it.
Will it be enough to stop Obama's slide in job approval polling?
It is too early to tell. Or, if you consider that too much of a cop-out, then how about "not yet." No matter how well Obama's new plan works, there's a certain amount of political damage that's already been done. Obamacare jokes are the go-to openers for the late-night comedians, and they have been for over a month now. That is not where any politician wants to be with the American public. Obama's job approval was low before the Obamacare website's disastrous rollout, and it has gone from bad to worse. Turning that around is not going to happen until the website reliably works and until the White House can point to millions of people who have successfully signed up. The numbers for November aren't going to be available until mid-December, and they'll likely be as disappointing as the October numbers were. It won't be until mid-January that solid numbers (from the anticipated December spike) will be available. Meaning Obama's poll numbers can be expected to remain very low for at least the next couple of weeks, at minimum.
Will it be enough to refocus the attention to other facets of Obamacare?
Possibly, but this is a two-edged sword. This is the real underlying question, when you consider the crass politics of the situation, which is why we saved it for the end. Assuming for the sake of argument that Obama's fix works well enough, and also assuming that the website reaches a minimal level of reliability and functionality on schedule (these are two very large assumptions, obviously) then this could refocus attention to other parts of Obamacare.
The double-edged sword part of that is that "refocus attention" is neither positive nor negative, it is neutral. To Obamacare critics, this will translate into "ignore the problem that got fixed, here are a whole bunch of other complaints," which would obviously be a bad thing politically for Obama. For Obamacare defenders, they may have a semi-successful fix to point to, as well as (keeping our stated assumptions) the fact that the program is finally up and running more or less as designed. This means refocusing the attention on the successes of Obamacare -- which as can easily be seen is going to be a tough sell after the past two months. As previously mentioned, hard numbers showing millions successfully signed up likely won't appear before (at minimum) mid-January. And Obamacare supporters, from Obama on down, are already forced into a defensive position so switching to offense is going to be tough -- especially considering the fact that Obamacare critics will be bringing up fresh horror stories to trot out in the media, which will also need defending against.
To sum up: one press conference isn't going to be a game-changer for the public's opinion about Obamacare. If this sounds too pessimistic, well, patience is necessary. Over the long haul, Obamacare may indeed be a success and enjoy rising popularity with the American public. But that's over the long haul, and won't even be seen until early next year. It won't be seen until millions of Americans have not only gone through the process successfully but are now enjoying doctor visits and the peace of mind that comes from having quality insurance. Which is going to take a lot longer than the political reaction to one press conference.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant