Commentary Magazine


The Court Jesters

Easily the strangest moment in last night’s State of the Union address was when President Obama promised to ignore Congress and carry out his agenda without their legislative oversight or cooperation and was met with a hearty ovation from congressional Democrats. One possible explanation was that they weren’t listening, and responded to a vocal cue. Another is that they simply assumed it was their obligation to shower their king with praise.

But there’s actually a third explanation, which may be giving them too much credit but is also at least logical. Politico carries an interesting story today on the tension between congressional Democrats and Obama over the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare and its possible impact on the fall midterm elections. In the president’s address, he tried to ward off Republican attempts to undo the unpopular law by holding vote after vote to repeal it. Enough of those symbolic votes, Obama said: “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”

But it turns out that, as the Politico story shows, the president’s real problem on ObamaCare is not Republican opposition–which he can dismiss as partisan posturing–but the congressional Democrats:

With the Democratic grip on the Senate coming down to at least six seats, the White House is extremely sensitive to the concerns of in-cycle Democrats. The administration hopes to use the president’s authority to assuage voter anger over the law, as it did recently by exempting volunteer fire departments from health coverage mandates.

In addition to Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection this year, the effort is also being organized by Heidi Heitkamp, who won a bruising battle in North Dakota last cycle. And the discussions include a spate of Democrats facing potentially difficult races this year, including Begich, Pryor, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

While the private discussions consist of several senators who are not running for reelection — namely freshmen Democrats like Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the independent Angus King of Maine — at least nine senators facing voters in the fall are discussing whether to push legislation or pressure the White House to make administrative fixes they can then flag to voters back home.

The issue is this: the president doesn’t really want to talk about ObamaCare, because until coverage expands the White House will continue to lose the battle of the anecdotes. The law, thus far, is creating more “losers” than “winners.” The expansion of coverage under the law may not fix that because of Medicaid’s manifold weaknesses. Additionally, unless the employer mandate is repealed, its suspension will come to an end and inflict plenty of pain on the economy. And people will continue losing the plans they like.

However, the president has the bully pulpit and everyone who needs insurance and gets it under ObamaCare can have their story trumpeted by the traveling salesman in chief. The government will also claim, on behalf of ObamaCare, more credit for expanding coverage than it warrants while keeping the real numbers hidden for as long as possible, the way central planners always must in order to hide their incompetence.

The point is, the White House wants time to catch up. But Democrats up for reelection in November don’t have that time. They want to talk about ObamaCare–specifically, they want to talk about fixing it. Obama doesn’t, because that would admit its faults and failures.

Going through Congress is also a political minefield for the president, because Republicans still control the House and have enough seats in the Senate to make Democratic votes count. The president may be willing to make certain fixes to the law, but he doesn’t want to lose control of it.

Democrats have reason to be wary as well. The reason Harry Reid has been chipping away at minority rights and ignoring Senate rules and traditions is so Democrats can be spared from taking difficult votes. Tossing ObamaCare back into the Senate would mean some of these Democrats may get the votes they want–but they may also be forced to take votes they don’t, and the last thing they want is to have yet another vote in support of ObamaCare heading into the midterms. (That’s why they’re in this predicament in the first place.)

But there is a solution: The president can ignore the law and Congress and adjust the legislation accordingly, no votes necessary. Congressional Democrats are comfortable with this because they don’t want something as trifling as the law of the land or the Constitution to get in the way of their reelection and continued empowerment. The president is comfortable with this because he considers Congress’s main responsibility to be to stand and clap for him when he insults them to their faces. Which is what they, and he, did at last night’s address.

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