Health insurance mess puts Obama's credibility on the line

It’s been a terrible week for President Obama as he keeps taking hits on the Affordable Care Act. A majority of voters now say Obama is not ‘honest and trustworthy,’ and his job approval rating has dropped to the level of George W. Bush.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama speaks about his signature health care law Thursday in the White House press room. Bowing to pressure, Obama has agreed to permit continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they failed to meet coverage standards under the Affordable Care Act.

The headlines seemed to come in a rapid-fire rhetorical onslaught.

“Fighting for His Presidency … Does Obama Have Any Cred Left? … Does the health-care fumble mean game over for Obama? … The five biggest ways Obamacare’s problems have hurt Democrats … Is This Obama’s Katrina? … Obama needs his friends back.”

If President Obama has had a worse week than the one just ending, it’s hard to remember.

He had to apologize for the Affordable Care Act computer problems that have turned out to be far more than “glitches.” He acknowledged having misspoke – Republicans say he lied – when he told the American people they could keep their existing health-care plans. He watched as more than three dozen Democratic House members jumped ship to vote for a Republican bill adjusting Obamacare in a way the White House threatens to veto.

"I'm just going to keep on working as hard as I can around the priorities that I think the American people care about,” Obama said Thursday in what must have been an excruciating press conference. “And I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health-care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general."

Fumbling in football was the image he raised again and again.

“We fumbled the rollout on this health-care law,” he said. “I am very frustrated, but I’m also somebody who, if I fumbled the ball, you know, I’m going to wait until I get the next play, and then I’m going to try to run as hard as I can and do right by the team.”

Questions remain. Will there be a “next play” for the embattled president, or will he be effectively benched? And who, exactly, is his “team” anymore?

The Washington Post’s “The Fix” political blog helpfully points out “The five biggest ways Obamacare’s problems have hurt Democrats” – a party that’s beginning to feel the kind of angst the GOP did last month when most Americans blamed the GOP for the government shutdown.

Thirty-nine Democrats joined Republicans Friday to pass a House bill that would allow insurers to keep selling the kinds of policies that were being canceled for existing customers. Not only that, they could offer such policies to new customers.

"It would take away the core protections of that law," complained Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California. “It creates an entire shadow market of substandard health-care plans.”

It’s complicated, but as the Monitor’s Francine Kiefer writes, the change could result in “higher premiums and, potentially, an insurance system that can’t adequately support itself.”

As the Washington Post reported, the House vote was “the largest defection by far on a major or closely-watched piece of legislation this year, signaling the political difficulty that dozens of congressional Democrats face in reelection contests next year.”

Obama’s concession on existing health-care policies this week would only allow insurers and state insurance commissioners to extend those policies through most of 2014.

But some Democrats in the Senate – the most vulnerable ones facing reelection – likely would join Republicans in voting for a “Keep Your Health Plan Act” of the type that passed in the House 261-157.

Obama’s credibility gap – compared in the press to Ronald Reagan after Iran-contra, Bill Clinton after he was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair, and George W. Bush after hurricane Katrina – is crystal clear in the latest polls.

For the first time, a majority of voters (52 percent to 48 percent) say Obama is not “honest and trustworthy,” according to the most recent Quinnipiac University National Poll. The disapproval rating among women (51 percent to 40 percent), where Obama has done particularly well in past polls and elections, is even wider.

"President Obama's job approval rating has fallen to the level of former President George W. Bush at the same period of his presidency," says Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Any Democrat with an 11-point approval deficit among women is in trouble. And any elected official with an 8-point trust deficit is in serious trouble." 

"President Obama's misstatement, 'If you like your health plan, you can keep it,' left a bad taste with a lot of people,” Mr. Malloy says. “Nearly half of the voters, 46 percent, think he knowingly deceived them.”

Other polls find similar results.

About the time he was sworn in for a second term in January, Obama’s approval rating was mostly positive – 52 percent to 40 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, those figures are reversed: 53 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing, while 41 percent approve. On health care, it’s even worse: 59 percent versus 37 percent.

“Credibility is not just about honesty. It's about authority,” writes John Dickerson, Slate’s chief political correspondent. “Does the president really have command over the things he's talking about?”

So far, most Americans don’t think so.

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