The White House believes it is ready to take advantage of a rare political victory on healthcare.
Senior administration officials say it was tough to build political momentum with ObamaCare’s enrollment numbers hanging over their heads.
“In order to capture a sort of national attention — it was going to be impossible to do that before enrollment ended,” one senior administration official told The Hill.
The official said the effort to boost ObamaCare’s enrollment after a dismal start last fall created an “all-consuming external focus on healthcare,” even as the administration sought to build cases for hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and extending federal unemployment benefits.
Another senior administration official acknowledged the healthcare law was the biggest political story over the past six months, in no small part due to the botched rollout.
Going forward, the administration now believes its economic policy calls will get more oxygen, with the healthcare law restored to “its rightful place in the Washington ecosystem,” the official said.
The White House also believes Republicans will be deprived of what could have been a potent political arrow.
The administration says the GOP was banking on a steady drumbeat of bad ObamaCare news for the midterm elections, similar to how the party had expected bad economic headlines to aid Mitt Romney’s presidential effort in 2012. The enrollment figures make such headlines about the law less likely.
President Obama is seeking to capitalize on the positive news by hitting the road, where he will not only talk up the White House’s populist pitch but other core Democratic priorities like voting rights.
Both issues are intended to energize a base that feels it has something to crow about after the healthy ObamaCare numbers.
Getting liberal Democrats to feel good about themselves is crucial to the party’s overarching political objective of keeping a Senate majority this year.
Democrats are worried about losing the Senate and see Obama’s poor poll numbers as being a drag on the ticket.
But momentum in politics can turn quickly, as both parties saw after ObamaCare’s problems in October quickly erased gains the Democrats made during the GOP-fueled government shutdown.
On Monday, the president traveled to a Maryland high school, where he awarded federal grants that pay for work-study programs and advanced courses designed to better prepare students for college and the workplace. Later in the day, he met with business leaders to brainstorm ways the government could attract foreign investment and support commercial innovation.
On Tuesday, Obama plans to sign a pair of executive orders intended to strengthen equal-pay protections for women and minorities.
They will prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employees who disclose their salaries, and require contractors to submit information about the salaries, genders and races of its workers.
Later in the week, the president will head to Texas for a speech on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. While the White House says the president won’t likely unveil any new policy proposals, Obama will look to link his State of the Union plans to address income and opportunity inequality to the civil rights struggles of the past. He made a similar argument during in his speech commemorating the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech last year.
On Friday, Obama will headline Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference in New York, where the White House says he will address voting rights protections, after a Supreme Court ruling last year gutted a core provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Separately, a senior administration official said the White House’s coordination with leaders on Capitol Hill to pursue a politically advantageous legislative agenda was still going “full throttle.”
Democratic strategist Tad Devine said Obama has to prove he can energize the “Obama coalition” — the minority, female and well-educated white voters who buoyed his two presidential campaigns. The key, Devine says, is “mobilizing voters not only on behalf of his candidacy, but for a cause.”
Without the president on the top of the ticket, breaking through the noise with a persuasive and engaging policy argument becomes crucial to Democratic chances in the fall.
“If you did a poll today and asked people what they wanted their elected officials to be focused on, it’s not going to be Russia and Crimea, it’s not going to be aspects of the Affordable Care Act — it’s going to be the economy,” Devine said.
“If he gets out there and looks like a guy who is focused on the pocketbook challenges they’re confronting, I think he’s going to do really well with energizing voters.”
The White House insists the move isn’t a pivot and that Obama has stayed focused on those issues — even if the media wasn’t paying attention.
“The president’s going to be focused on what he was focused on in the past, which is expanding opportunity, rewarding hard work,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
The White House is also eager not to overextend itself, even after last week’s positive news on ObamaCare.
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer insisted there was no contemplation of a “victory lap” during an interview Sunday with CBS News.
White House officials say Obama told his staff that, while the enrollment number was commendable, they should keep their attention focused on remaining nuts-and-bolts issues, like shepherding more consumers through the queue before the final April 15 cutoff for outstanding enrollments.
“The program looks strong, and enrollments are great, but it’s still very controversial,” said Princeton University political analyst Julian Zelizer.
“The president needs to be cautious. He doesn’t want to overplay his hand, and he doesn’t want to make himself more of an issue in midterm elections,” he said.