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Obamacare on the ballot is bad news for the president

The political football of health insurance, supposedly taken off the playing field in 2012 by the Supreme Court decision declaring the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act constitutional, is being kicked around again.

The Obama administration has put the ball in the air just in time for the approaching 2014 congressional elections with its decision to delay for another year the employer mandate requiring companies with 50 or more workers employees to provide coverage.

Many Democrats assumed that the surprising vote of Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 decision on what for good or ill is now universally known as Obamacare had killed its opposition as a decisive political issue. They chuckled at the House Republican kabuki dance of passing 31 separate bills to "repeal and replace" the legislation that all knew was going nowhere.

But Obamacare's ardent foes have been given a reprieve by the administration's delay in the face of widespread pressure from recalcitrant or just plain confused employers seeking more time to comply with excessive implementing paperwork. Administration defenders insist the delay will benefit all concerned by assuring the mandate is properly and comprehensively launched, which smacks of weak rationale.

The Republicans in turn have gleefully seized on it to fire off a salvo of we-told-you-sos, that Obamacare is an incomprehensible mess that most Americans don't want and don't understand. House Speaker John Boehner unsurprisingly has led the chorus, saying the administration's pullback is "a clear acknowledgment that the law is unworkable" and that "the train wreck will only get worse."

Suddenly, the temporary Obamacare sidetracking gives the Republicans another chance in next year's midterm elections to resurrect the issue that in 2010 helped them take control of the House, to the deep dismay of the Obama administration.

Up to now, the Republicans' chief political worry looking to the 2014 midterms has been the fight over immigration reform. Many in the GOP continue to resist it despite the trouncing the party took in 2012, when 70 percent of Hispanic voters backed Mr. Obama for his support (or punished Republicans for their opposition).

Whether Congress before the next midterms passes immigration reform or it is blocked again by the House Republicans, 2014 looms as a peril to their majority. At a minimum, a revival of Obamacare as an issue gives the party a vehicle to divert the political conversation to more favorable ground, at least temporarily.

In the meantime, the Obama administration must make the case all over again for its health insurance reform plan and to offer a much more lucid explanation of what already seems an uncertain and convoluted path to wider insurance coverage for Americans.

Ever since the Clinton administration, what has been advertised as near-universal coverage has had a hard slog to general voter acceptance. The secretive and drawn-out efforts to construct and pass a comprehensive package by then-first lady Hillary Clinton ended in frustration and failure and cast a shadow on her own presidential aspirations in 2008.

Revisiting the health care fight that Mr. Obama finally won may remind voters of Ms. Clinton's own losing experience in that arena, just as expectations rise that she will seek the presidency again in 2016. Her strong campaign in 2008, and her subsequent, acclaimed four-year service as secretary of state, have made the next Democratic nomination seem hers for the taking.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama himself has more immediately at stake in seeing that the Affordable Care Act survives renewed Republican opposition and unforeseen implementation hurdles.

As voters contemplate the future of Congress in the 2014 midterms, the president can't afford to have Obamacare revived as a central issue if he hopes to complete his presidency with Capitol Hill in more cooperative hands.

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 © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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