President Barack Obama scored a rare victory in his fight to introduce universal health insurance to the United States, as a late surge of enrollees under his new health-care law exceeded expectations.
Mr. Obama went to the Rose Garden Tuesday to announce that 7.1-million Americans had signed up for private health insurance on Internet-based exchanges run by the federal government, much better than forecasts that only six million people would do so before the March 31 deadline.
The initial enrolment figure was perhaps the best news for the President related to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, since the law passed in 2010.
Polls show the changes are disliked by about half the population, in no small part because the website the Obama administration built to operate as an exchange for insurance offerings crashed out of the gate last fall. It took weeks to fix the glitches, and Healthcare.gov still struggles to handle heavy traffic. The delay prompted the Congressional Budget Office to predict earlier this year that the administration’s target of seven million enrollees would be unachievable this year.
Obamacare has also been the focus of Republican attacks. States run by Republican governors refused to co-operate with the Obama administration, complicating the rollout of the law. Constant promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act have contributed to colouring the public’s perception of Mr. Obama’s signature policy achievement, and the website’s failure contributed to his approval ratings dropped below 50 per cent for the first time in his presidency.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama fought back, counterpunching with a vigour that has been lacking in his defence of the health law for some time. He told obstructionists that “nobody remembers well those who stand in the way of American progress,” and he said that he would see to it that the United States no longer would stand out as the only major economy without some form of universal health coverage.
“The debate over repealing this law is over,” Mr. Obama said. “The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”
Republicans have vowed to make Obamacare the centrepiece of their midterm election campaigns, convinced the public’s displeasure with the initial experiences with Obamacare will help them make gains in Congress. At this stage, the strategy appears to be working, as several election forecasters say the Republicans will easily retain control of the House of Representatives in November, and may even reclaim the majority in the Senate.
Paul Ryan, the head of the House Budget Committee and the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012, presented a financial plan Tuesday that would repeal Obamacare as part of a broader initiative to erase the deficit by cutting $5.1-trillion (U.S.) in spending over a decade starting in 2015.
The document is symbolic, as neither the Senate nor the President would back many – if any – of its provisions. Rather, it’s a statement of Republican priorities and will serve as something of a campaign document for the midterm elections.
Back in 2010, Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House used their dominance of the legislative process to pass the Affordable Care Act without any Republican support. The affront to the American tradition of passing major legislative changes with at least some bipartisan support contributed to the Tea Party wave that helped the Republicans take back the House in midterms later that year.
That electoral defeat appeared to make Democratic politicians, including the President, sensitive about defending Obamacare too forcefully. Mr. Obama shook off any reticence Tuesday, calling on his opponents to explain their desire to undermine a policy that is helping millions of people.
“Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of folks having health insurance?” Mr. Obama said. “This law is helping millions of Americans, and in the coming years it will help millions more.”