Democrats Are (Slowly) Learning to Love Obamacare

Women rally in support of Obamacare in front of the Supreme Court in 2012. Women rally in support of Obamacare in front of the Supreme Court in 2012. Flickr user LaDawna Howard

Democrats won't be mounting a big political offensive around the Affordable Care Act any time soon, but they're beginning to test the pro-Obamacare waters.

Heading into the 2014 midterms, Republicans continue to hold a clear advantage in the politics of Obamacare. And even if the tide does ultimately shift for the law, it almost certainly won't happen by November. Still, there are signs that Democrats are slowly becoming more confident talking about the health care law, or at least parts of it.

"There is a palpable comfort that didn't exist as recently as six months ago," said Chris Jennings, who worked on health care strategy in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. "I think we're in transition, moving from a defense to an achievement strategy."

If that transition is happening, though, it's still in its very early phases.

Democratic strategists cautioned against reading too much into the trickle of pro-Obamacare messaging some candidates have embraced. The health care law is finding a place in Democrats' campaigns often as a byproduct of some other political need, they said, not because of a broader strategic shift within the party.

They downplayed, for example, the recent ad in which Mark Pryor of Arkansas—one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats—highlighted popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The ad shows Pryor, appearing alongside his father, discussing his own bout with cancer and saying he "helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions."

Many liberal pundits were ecstatic about the spot, proclaiming that Democrats finally understood how to win on Obamacare. But Democratic strategists said that wasn't the most important element; the ad is "very much about Mark telling his personal story," and not about making a pro-Obamacare argument, said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"This is not a response ad by any means; this is a bio ad, this is an ad about who he is. They would have run this ad regardless of what the politics of ACA are," a Democratic strategist said.

Similarly, Sen. Kay Hagan has made the law's Medicaid expansion a key component of her bid for reelection in conservative North Carolina, which has rejected the coverage expansion.

Democrats' emerging confidence comes as the law is taking a smaller role in Republicans' attack ads. GOP candidates and allies in a handful of states—including North Carolina—have shifted from an all-Obamacare-all-the-time advertising strategy to one that incorporates Obamacare into a larger message about jobs and the economy.

All those trend lines are pointing in the same direction, but that doesn't mean Democrats have suddenly won the upper hand on Obamacare.

First of all, it might not work. Pryor and Hagan have both backed into health care: He embraced it as a way to tell a personal story, and Hagan's focus on Medicaid is one that should resonate with the Democratic base in her state. But there's still a pretty good chance that Pryor and Hagan—like many of their colleagues who also voted for Obamacare—will lose.

And despite the excitement Pryor's ad stirred up on the left, Jennings said he doesn't expect to see a rush of Democrats taking the same tack. Candidates have other issues they'd rather focus on, he said, and there's "some health care fatigue out there"; after five years of bitter partisan fighting about Obamacare, polls show most people are ready to move on.

The same polls also show that the health care law remains unpopular—and poorly understood.

In the most recent monthly tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the law's favorability rating held steady at 39 percent, while its unfavorable rating rose to an all-time high of 53 percent. The same survey has found that Republicans' opposition to the law is much more passionate than Democrats' support for it. And even though the public at large wants Congress to fix the law rather than repeal it, a majority of Republicans said they'd prefer to keep the focus on repeal.

Those attitudes are so entrenched that Democrats may never hold an advantage on Obamacare. But polls also show that voters like many specific elements of the law—which is probably why Pryor didn't mention it by name when he described one of its central provisions.

In Kaiser's March poll, the most recent to survey individual components of the law, 70 percent of voters said they approve of a policy requiring insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions. Just 54 percent, though, knew that policy was part of Obamacare. Likewise, in the most recent survey, just 37 percent knew that the law offers consumers a choice among private insurance plans.

That disconnect has dogged Democrats throughout the Obamacare debate, and it helps explain why Republicans' job is so much easier than Democrats'. But now that the law's most popular provisions are finally in place, Jennings said, Democrats can start to follow the advice former President Clinton has been offering: Frame the debate around Republican attempts to take away real-life benefits.

"Time is definitely on the side of the ACA. As time goes by, more people benefit.… It isn't a theoretical discussion any longer," Jennings said.

Alex Roarty contributed to this article.

(Image via Flickr user LaDawna Howard)

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.