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As president grovels, politics of Obamacare get worse

The president has a mess on his hands, and his colleagues know it

By David Horsey

6:00 AM EST, November 19, 2013

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In the long run, Obamacare is likely to be as popular and permanent as Medicare; in the short term, however, it is turning into the worst political crisis of Barack Obama's presidency.

On Thursday, the contrite president announced that Americans whose health care insurance policies have been cancelled due to requirements of the Affordable Care Act would have another year to keep those policies. This new guarantee is meant to make up for his ill-considered promise that no one would lose their old policies if they wanted to keep what they had.

The problem with Mr. Obama's new promise, though, is that he cannot force insurers to restore policies they have already terminated. And rather than doing the president any favors, those insurers are attacking him for trying to change the rules in the middle of the game.

Mr. Obama has a mess on his hands and -- judging by his almost daily apologies for the screwed up launch of the national health care exchange website, as well as for his misstatements about the effect of the plan on several million people who buy their own policies -- it is pretty clear he knows how deep the mess has become.

Instead of anyone offering to help him out, though, everyone is piling on.

His fellow Democrats in the House and Senate are panicked, fearing that the bad feelings about Obamacare will imperil their chances for re-election. Some are rushing to concoct a bill -- any bill! -- to do something -- anything! -- about health care. Their object is not to provide a fix, but to provide political cover. In the words of NBC's chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, Democratic senators and congressmen want to be able to demonstrate to their constituents that they "stood up to the president."

It may seem strange that Democrats would prefer to run against Mr. Obama rather than put in extra effort to make the president's health care plan work, but fear of losing a political career makes politicians do weird things.

Electoral considerations are also what drive the Republican response to Obama's predicament. Any bad news for the president is good news for them. The last thing they would think of doing is anything constructive to improve America's health care system if doing so would help the president they despise.

The media are running with the story, of course -- not just the permanent opposition at Fox News, but most of the so-called mainstream media. Obamacare's shaky start is the hot political crisis of the moment and can hardly be ignored. Still, as Rachel Maddow observed on MSNBC Thursday night, Romneycare -- the Massachusetts health care scheme which provided the template for Obamacare -- took a year to catch on, and no one at the time thought of the early missteps as a huge scandal or proof that the plan would never get off the ground. Politicians in both parties worked to pull it together and now 97 percent of the citizens of Massachusetts have health care coverage.

Don't expect anything like that sensible approach with Obamacare. Health care is a political football, above all else, at the national level. Barack Obama has blown several big plays and lost a lot of yardage. His own team is not providing much coverage and the other side is lined up, revved up and ready to sack him, steal the ball and put him out of the game.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.