Touting 7.1M Enrollees, Obama Says ACA "Debate Is Over"

Touting 7.1M Enrollees, Obama Says ACA "Debate Is Over"
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Democrats tried Tuesday to focus their high-fives on the 7.1 million (and still counting) new enrollees for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That was the tally of sign-ups President Obama announced in the Rose Garden as he thanked the law’s architects and challenged its critics, warning Republicans that their repeal platform is on the wrong side of history.

“The debate over repealing this law is over,” he declared. “The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”

On a sun-filled spring day, in front of an audience of young advocates who worked to sign up millions of Americans for insurance, the president stood in front of Vice President Biden, who remained silent.

Obama looked out at a beaming Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who sat in the front row next to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other officials. But the president did not mention her.

He praised Nancy Pelosi, who shared a private lunch at the White House with Obama on Tuesday, and he smiled as the House minority leader tugged Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois to his feet to accept enthusiastic applause.

“And that's thanks in part to leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin and all the members of Congress who are here today,” Obama said as the audience clapped. “We could not have done it without them, and they should be proud of what they've done.”

The president said “millions of people who now have insurance would not have it” if Republicans in Congress had repealed the law. Without Obamacare, he said, seniors would have to pay more for prescription drugs. Young people wouldn’t be able to stay on their parents’ health plans. Women could be charged more for care than men. Americans with pre-existing conditions could be dropped from coverage or made to pay high rates for insurance they would be lucky to find.

Those days are gone, Obama said, even if the reform law still faces implementation pains in the years ahead.

The president could not point to a specific number of Americans who were previously uninsured who had signed up. The law mandates that almost all Americans have insurance in 2014. Independent surveys suggest outreach to the uninsured was less persuasive than hoped. For decades, however, covering the uninsured through private insurance, an expansion of Medicaid and coverage for children was a key rationale for reforms.

Administration officials said a detailed breakdown of the more than 7 million enrollees is forthcoming, but no date has been set.

In the meantime, Obama declared the law both a triumph and a success.

“History is not kind to those who would deny Americans their basic economic security. Nobody remembers well those who stand in the way of America's progress or our people,” the president warned the ACA’s detractors. “And that's what the Affordable Care Act represents. As messy as it's been sometimes, as contentious as it's been sometimes, it is progress.”

The broader theme for the midterm elections has been clear -- Democrats giveth, and Republicans taketh away -- and Obama stressed it yet again on Tuesday.

“Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance?” he asked. “I got to admit, I don’t get it … the lengths to which critics have gone to scare people or undermine the law or try to repeal the law without offering any plausible alternative.”

The president will return to that campaign theme Wednesday when he travels to Michigan to urge passage of a $10.10 federal minimum wage. Many Republican lawmakers say they oppose such an increase, fearing it would encourage employers to eliminate jobs or delay plans for expansion, trim workers’ hours, or pass increases along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Pelosi, in remarks in the White House driveway following her lunch with the president, said Democratic candidates can now turn a page and return to a broader economic message. Her colleagues plan to draw sharp contrasts with their Republican opponents, casting them as impediments to help for the middle class, she said.

“While, as I say, we're proud of the Affordable Care Act, we now pivot to job creation,” Pelosi said, noting that Democrats are prepared to defend the ACA as “a job creator” that also lowers deficits.

Job creation is of key interest to voters, but it’s where conservative candidates are vulnerable, she said. “That's a place where the Republicans have been totally bankrupt in terms of their suggestions.”

The focus on middle-class economic values with a positive role for government was part of Obama’s 2012 election playbook. But without a presidential contest, midterm elections attract smaller numbers of voters and can turn on local and regional issues. Republicans have predicted that objections to Obamacare will turn out the GOP base, while Democrats hope their aspirations for kitchen-table economic help are welcomed by the party’s base, plus independent voters.

“We have two big contrasting views of the future: the president's agenda, which is about the future, [and] the Republican budget … taking us backward,” Pelosi added. “And that is what I think will be the debate in the election.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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