As Democrats survey a troubled 2014 political landscape, it's easy to forget how optimistic they seemed less than a year ago.
"I would expect that Nancy Pelosi is going to be speaker again pretty soon," President Obama told cheering House Democrats at a party retreat last February.
In the rosy scenario that took hold in some Democratic circles, the party was positioned to recapture the House in 2014 and maintain control of the Senate, allowing Obama to defy the history of second-term presidential decline. Great successes and good years lay ahead.
Had Democrats forgotten Obamacare, the law they passed in 2010 that was scheduled to take effect in 2014? It almost seemed as if they had.
Obama and his allies put off the arrival of Obamacare until after the president faced re-election in 2012. His administration also delayed releasing key rules regarding the law until after the election for fear of angering voters. But now they can't put it off any longer. 2014 will be the year Democrats pay for Obamacare.
When Obama spoke to the House retreat, polls consistently showed Democrats leading in the so-called "generic ballot" question, that is, whether voters will choose a Democratic or a Republican representative in the next election. Now, however, there's been a big swing away from Democrats and toward Republicans.
In addition, a new CNN poll found that 55 percent of voters surveyed said that when it comes to congressional races, they're more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes Obama than one who supports the president. "Those kind of numbers spelled early trouble for the Democrats before the 1994 and 2010 midterms, and for the GOP before the 2006 elections," CNN polling director Keating Holland reported on the network's website.
Meanwhile, support for Obamacare, already low, could fall further as more middle-income Americans — voters — figure out that they are the ones who will be paying for the Democrats' national health care scheme.
In 2009 and 2010, Obama, Pelosi and their fellow Democrats sold Obamacare as a kind of miracle. It would give health insurance to 30 million previously uncovered people and cut the federal deficit by more than a trillion dollars at the same time. And the only taxes needed to pay for it all would fall on the very wealthy. It seemed impossible, but that's what they claimed.
Now, millions of middle-income Americans who probably felt safe from Obamacare's taxes are learning that they will pay for the program after all, in the form of higher premiums. Democrats constructed a system in which insurance companies would be forced to cover more people and then spread the cost around among those who had coverage all along, meaning many middle-income Americans will have to pay more for what they already had. Taxpayer-paid subsidies would go to lower-income Americans.
"The Affordable Care Act was not designed to reduce costs or, the law's name notwithstanding, to make health insurance coverage affordable for the vast majority of Americans," health care consultant Kip Piper told USA Today. "The law uses taxpayer dollars to lower costs for the low-income uninsured but it also increases costs overall and shifts costs within the marketplace."
It was a clever strategy, allowing Democrats to sell their bill as a deficit cutter that wouldn't raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans. But the public had to find out eventually. "ACA taxes were imposed only on high-income people," the conservative writer David Frum noted recently in a series of tweets. "But large costs fall on the middle class, too, in the hidden, kludgy form of rate hikes. 'Obamacare is deficit neutral' wasn't technically a lie, but it was highly misleading. The middle class will pay and is paying."
Did most Americans understand that when Obamacare was passed and signed into law? Unlikely. But 2014 will be the year they find out.
And they are unlikely to be kind to the people who sold them that bill of goods. Democrats can comfort themselves by noting that the public disapproves of Republicans, too. But if Obamacare is a major political issue in November 2014 — and indications are that it will be — then Democrats will be the party that pays. And all their optimism of 2013 will seem like it was a long, long time ago.