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Obama's crowning legislative achievement is now his albatross [Commentary]

The Obama administration's latest delay in fully implementing the employer mandate in its embattled health-care insurance law confirms the harsh fact that it remains a huge political albatross hanging around the president's neck.

The conceding of another year or more of time to employers to offer health-care coverage to their workers guarantees that the contentious issue will continue to plague Barack Obama as he struggles to free himself of the legislative near-paralysis that has gripped Washington throughout his Oval Office tenure.

The law, fixed poisonously in the public mind as Obamacare, now gives employers of 50 or more workers approximately two years to comply and avoid a federal penalty, and employers of 100 or more a year. While giving management more breathing room, the move guarantees the heated debate will continue to dominate the public and political discourse.

Already, the "reprieve" for employers calculating how best they can comply and at what cost is being decried as favorable treatment at the expense of workers, who are obliged by the law to obtain insurance coverage or face their own penalty for noncompliance.

Beyond that, the latest switch in the rules smacks of confusion if not incompetence on the part of the administration in anticipating the complications of rolling out and applying the rules governing Mr. Obama's prize legislative achievement.

The president's public image as a cool, controlled chief executive who maintains a steadying demeanor when all around him is chaos has been imperiled by the journey of Obamacare from progressive theory to real-world glitches. Also, his stumbles in efforts to defend his pet project, including misstatements about citizens' ability keep their old insurance, have given his foes ammunition with which to question not only his sure-footedness but his honesty.

The president's pivot in the second year of his second term to greater reliance on executive-branch powers in the face of legislative stalemate has played into House Speaker John Boehner's hands. As disingenuous as his argument may be, he alleges that the administration under Mr. Obama cannot "be entrusted to enforce our laws'' as written by the politically divided legislative branch.

Ironically, largely as a result of the way Obamacare has come to dominate the domestic agenda well into this president's second term, with no end in sight, the president as its chief advocate finds himself captive to his own offspring.

The allegation of incompetence that haunted former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia during his one term in the White House in the 1970s is now being hurled at Mr. Obama by his single-minded Republican opponents on Capitol Hill, with the implementation of Obamacare their particular bludgeon.

In a sense, Mr. Obama was blind-sided by his apparent expectation, shared with his chief policy advisers, that the health-care insurance protection so long sought by liberal Democrats, once in place, would be a huge and continuing political boost for the party.

The absence of adequate health-care coverage for all Americans constituted a gaping hole in the social safety net that was the party's greatest domestic heritage from New Deal days. Obamacare under any name was expected to solidify Democratic support well into the future, particularly among lower-income and middle-income voters.

Instead, the jury remains out on whether it will be regarded the same anchor of political backing that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have become, or a cause of endless conflict. Much still depends on Mr. Obama's ability to lift the program beyond its substantial growing pains and engineer it to a recognized place in the fortress of government-provided social stability to which theDemocratic Party has claimed authorship.

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the law that now bears his name will be a central issue in the November congressional elections that likely will determine the course of his own agenda in his remaining two years in office. The same may well be true for the 2016 presidential election, especially if Hillary Clinton, who tried and failed to write a health-care law in her husband's presidency, is the Democratic nominee.

Unless Obamacare has settled in as the accepted and effective new component in the social safety net, this troublesome fight could still be with us two years from now.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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