What Obama’s new health care offensive could mean for midterm elections

December 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington today, President Obama worked to refocus the health care law debate on the successes of the Affordable Care Act.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

WOMAN: The president of the United States, Barack Obama.


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KWAME HOLMAN: The president touted benefits of the Affordable Care Act at the White House this afternoon, flanked by people who’ve gained under the program.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right now, what this law is doing is helping folks. And we’re just getting started with the exchanges, just getting started with the marketplaces. So, we’re not going to walk away from it. If I have got to fight another three years to make sure this law works, then that’s what I will do.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president’s appearance opened a new public relations offensive to move beyond the law’s troubled rollout.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Do not let the initial problems with the website discourage you, because it’s working better now, and it’s just going to keep on working better over time. Everyday I check to make sure that it’s working better.


KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough reported the healthcare.gov website had more than one million visitors yesterday after weeks of work to fix it.

There also were reports not all the kinks have been smoothed out. Yesterday, enrollment counselors in some states reported delays mounted as the day wore on and traffic at the website increased. And another problem loomed: Insurers warned that the system is generating faulty enrollment data that could prevent some people from getting coverage by January 1.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney challenged those claims.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: That statistic that was cited in the newspaper today doesn’t reflect at all the picture of what is happening right now. In fact, I’m not sure it’s an accurate picture of issues with the back end of the system even going back weeks.

KWAME HOLMAN: The administration also reported that nearly 1.5 million low-income people gained coverage under Medicaid in October. Twenty-five states have expanded Medicaid under the health care law.

But Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, kept up their assault on the broader program.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: This bill is fundamentally flawed. It’s causing people to lose the doctor of their choice, causing them to lose their health plan. And if that isn’t enough, they’re having to pay much higher prices at the same time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Other Republicans looked to buttress those claims with stories from constituents.

Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy:

REP. SEAN DUFFY, R-Wis.: In my district, Denise needs a kidney transplant. She’s lost her insurance. She’s lost her doctor. She’s going to the exchange, looking for insurance, and the one option that she has doesn’t provide coverage with her current doctor.

KWAME HOLMAN: The political back-and-forth has intensified as polls show opposition to the health care initiative growing and support for the president falling.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much, everybody.


KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama himself has acknowledged he faces an uphill fight to recover, even when the website is fixed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To get inside some of the politics here, we turn to strategists on each side of the health care fight.

Republican Ron Bonjean worked as communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and served as chief of staff for the Senate Republican Conference. And Brad Woodhouse, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, he’s now president of the Democratic group Americans United for Change, which has been backing the president on health care.

Thank you both for being here.

So, Brad Woodhouse, to you first. Why is this regrouping on the part of the White House necessary?

BRAD WOODHOUSE, Americans United for Change: Well, look, I think it is necessary because of what we have seen.

This has been a tough eight weeks. The rollout of healthcare.gov could not have gone worse for the White House or for Democrats or, frankly, for the people who want access to health care. But, look, there is a front-facing, aggressive period here where we are going to try to get people signed up.

And first two days, it looks like the health care website is working, so we will see what Republicans complain about next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ron Bonjean, if the White House is able to do what they say they are, they are going to get the website working, if they can address some of these other problems, why won’t they be able to undo some of the damage that has been done to the president…


RON BONJEAN, Republican strategist: This is what’s — this is what the president is really worried about.

He is putting a firewall around Obamacare right now, because Democrats are running away from it in droves. And he is trying a last stand to put the best face of Obamacare, you know, best face of its — of the branding around Obamacare that he can, because next year is an election year, and it is so critical. And millions of Americans are losing their health insurance this January 1, and they need to get signed up into these — into Obamacare quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if they get a lot of people, if they get millions of Americans signed up, the website is working better, can’t they undo that first impression?

RON BONJEAN: See, what is really interesting is that Republicans knew — we all know that the website is going to get fixed. It’s technology.

Eventually, it’s going to happen. But what we’re talking about now is, we’re talking about the access and affordability of Obamacare. People’s premiums are likely to go up. People’s deductibles are going to go up. The access around to getting to their doctor is going to be troublesome.

And I think that is what you are going to see, along with the security and lack thereof of the exchanges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Brad Woodhouse, you hear what he is saying, and that is even if the website is fixed and working very well, it is the other parts of this law that are going to create problems.

BRAD WOODHOUSE: Well, Judy, these are — these are just scare tactics.

Remember, you are talking to the same people who said there were going to be death panels as part of this law. First of all, let me say this. Democrats are not running away from this law. All of the political committees on the Democratic side today and the White House announced aggressive and offensive efforts to promote this law and to hold Republicans accountable, frankly, Judy, for sabotage.

And we have Republican governors throughout this country who have been given a gift. They can expand Medicaid and take care of people who are just right above the poverty line and can’t afford health care. They’re refusing to do it. So, we are going to hold them accountable — accountable.

We are not afraid of the politics of this. Ron is right. The website is fixed. People are going to get signed up, and people are going to like it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how are Republicans going to respond to that, if Democrats come back and say, hey, it is working, there are people who are being helped by this?

RON BONJEAN: Well, it is, frankly — the people are speaking for themselves.

People are getting dropped from the plans. They’re have problems getting access to it or they’re going to be paying more. What Republicans are doing right now this week is holding oversight hearings, at least five in the House, over everything from should the government be running your health care, to the quality of — what is going to happen to small businesses with health care.

You know, they’re — they are going the gamut. The RNC is going to be putting out a major digital push in the next 24 hours to talk about the problems with Obamacare. So there is no question about it. I think the product doesn’t sell itself.

I mean, President Obama, to have an anecdote, sold us a lamp and instead now, they are saying, well, look at this great paperweight.


BRAD WOODHOUSE: Here is the issue, Judy, is that Republicans still, 100 years into this debate, still haven’t offered their plan.

Speaker Boehner today just kind of was flippantly like, yes, we will see if we offer our own plan. Look, Obamacare has had problems in the rollout, but what Obamacare offers for the American people is far superior to going back to the type of discrimination that insurance companies participated in before, the gender discrimination, paying more for health care coverage just because you are a woman.

So, you know, they can argue for the status quo ante. We will argue for the success of Obamacare. And, look, things will play out next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ron Bonjean, is it enough for Republicans to criticize, which they clearly are doing, or do they need to come up with an alternative of their own?

RON BONJEAN: Well, absolutely.

Republicans were shut out of the process of developing Obamacare.

BRAD WOODHOUSE: That’s not true.

RON BONJEAN: And they need to talk about the law. They need to talk about the problems in the law, because that is what it is.

But, yes, they need to talk more about the answer to Obamacare. What do they have to sell? There is plenty. They believe in market — market-moving solutions. They believe in — they believe in helping — having small businesses pool their insurance costs to have them lower. They believe in going for trying to — for allowing for people to buy their insurance across state lines.

They believe in expanded health care savings accounts. They believe that people who have preexisting conditions should keep their health insurance if they are making continuous payments. There’s all kind of things that they can talk about.

And there will be a time for that, definitely.

BRAD WOODHOUSE: Well, Judy, that plan leaves millions and millions of people uncovered.

It doesn’t deal with people who can’t get health insurance because of a preexisting condition. And that plan was shown I think during the Romney campaign to cover one or two million additional people in the country.

RON BONJEAN: But the fact of the matter is, you’re leaving millions of people off health insurance now and raising their premiums, Brad. And you know that.


BRAD WOODHOUSE: That is not true. Premiums are down. The cost of health care inflation is down to its lowest point in 40 years.

The cost of this law, The New York Times reported, Judy, is lower than it was estimated. There’s a lot of good about Obamacare, and we are proud of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brad, let me ask you one final question.

We know that a lot of Democrats, a number of Democrats have been really nervous about the rollout of this, the content of the health care law. To what extent has the president been able to calm those fears on the part of people who are running for reelection next year?

BRAD WOODHOUSE: Well, you know, I think the president has done what he could do and what he can do.

He has reflected the frustration with the website. But all this came down really — or comes down to getting that website fixed and making sure that people who got those cancellation notices can go on the website and get signed up for new and better and lower-cost plans.

And there is going to be a sprint here in the next three weeks to make sure that this first cohort of people can do that before January the 1st.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ron Bonjean, now that the White House, the Democrats are clearly focused on fighting back on this, does it make it harder for Republicans to make the case you are trying to make?

RON BONJEAN: Well, I think it is really going to be up to the Senate, the Democrats, especially those who are vulnerable in red states, to make the decision.

If their blood — really, the question is, if their blood pressure is still up and they’re signing on the bills to — on the legislation that delays Obamacare for at least a year, then they are still going to have problems. If this bill smooths out and their blood pressure goes down, the White House is not going to have as many problems.

I think it is going to be up to the Democrats to see what happens next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We are going to leave it there.

Ron Bonjean, we thank you, Brad Woodhouse.

RON BONJEAN: Thank you.