With their Rose Garden party at the beginning of April, Team Obama had hoped to write a happy ending to Obamacare’s clunky rollout well ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. During that celebration of 7 million people signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama declared, “The debate over repealing this law is over.”
But that pep rally and the positive media coverage it triggered seem a thing of the past, as Kathleen Sebelius’ April 11 resignation as health and human services secretary—coming months after an Obamacare launch she admitted was a debacle—places the healthcare debate back on the political main stage.
“I hope this is the start of a candid conversation about Obamacare’s shortcomings,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Virtually everyone who has come into contact with this law has had new reason to worry about what it means for the government to control their health care.”
The platform for the conversation Republicans hope to have will be the upcoming confirmation hearings for Sylvia Burwell, Obama’s nominee to replace Sebelius. Last year, the Senate voted 96-0 to confirm Burwell, a Harvard graduate and longtime Democratic staff member with former President Bill Clinton, to her post as director of the Office of Management and Budget. It’s doubtful Republicans will be that easy on Burwell this time around—given the opportunity to put Democrats on the record ahead of November elections.
The midterm election strategy of congressional Democrats has focused on saying as little as possible about Obamacare. Many Democratic staff members had hoped Sebelius would wait to leave until after voters went to the polls. Her resignation surprised many on Capitol Hill, and puts vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection on the Obamacare defensive.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was just one of many Republicans who used the Sebelius news to issue a statement reminding voters about broken promises the president made concerning Obamacare.
“Changing the secretary won’t change the problem,” Moran said. “A disaster is still a disaster.”
The prospect of an Obamacare spotlight amid Burwell’s confirmation hearings should make Democrats uneasy, considering the latest poll numbers. More than 80 percent of respondents in a new Pew Research Center survey said a candidate’s stance on Obamacare is important; 54 percent said “very important.” Those who say the issue is important disapprove of the law by a 2-to-1 margin.
Overall, 50 percent of Americans in the poll said they disapproved of the law, while 37 percent favored it. That is the lowest approval rating for Obamacare since the summer of 2010, just before voters sent a wave of Republicans to the House.
With those numbers, Democratic incumbents should expect a barrage of ads tying them to Obamacare leading up to November. And Senate Democrats will be forced to make a confirmation vote that Republicans are likely to depict as another approval of the unpopular Obamacare.
Vulnerable Democrats fighting to stay in power likely will turn Sebelius into their scapegoat. Her series of verbal missteps make her a prime target. She claimed last summer that the Obamacare website was “on target” and “ready to go” only to see its October rollout turn into a disaster.
At a congressional hearing last October, Sebelius acknowledged that Obamacare “has been a miserably frustrating experience” for too many Americans. “You deserve better,” she added. “I apologize.”
But Sebelius did, in March 2013, become one of the few Obama administration officials to admit that insurance premiums could increase as a result of Obamacare—a prediction that’s come true for millions of Americans.
Republicans reacted to the Sebelius announcement by questioning what took her so long to resign.
“It’s about time,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas where Sebelius once served as governor.
But many Republicans hope her exit has come at just the right time, allowing a debate the president says is over to perhaps begin again.