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Philip Klein: Obamacare's shifting expectations

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Politics Digest,Obamacare

In March 2010, weeks before the final passage of President Obama's national health care law, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered the infamous line that "we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it," adding, in a less quoted phrase, "away from the fog of the controversy."

Pelosi's intention was to explain — not that she personally didn't know what was in the bill — but that there were myriad benefits in the legislation that were getting lost in all the focus on the process of passing it. Once the bill was passed, she was attempting to argue, Americans would begin to see all of the amazing things it had to offer.

This was a central part of the pitch being made to reluctant House Democrats in the final push to get health care legislation across the finish line.

"I know this is a tough vote," Obama told House Democrats a day before they voted on the bill. "And I am actually confident — I've talked to some of you individually — that it will end up being the smart thing to do politically because I believe that good policy is good politics."

More than three years have gone by since the law's passage, and yet Americans are no closer to embracing it. Just this week, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that just 35 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the health care law. In March 2010, Kaiser found that 46 percent of respondents supported it at least somewhat.

Democrats are starting to get nervous. Sen. Max Baucus, a key author of the legislation, made headlines by warning of a looming "train wreck" for Obamacare as its major provisions get implemented next year, just as many vulnerable Democrats stand for re-election.

"The administration's public information campaign on the benefits of the [Patient Protection and] Affordable Care Act deserves a failing grade," Baucus also sternly told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

In other words, Baucus was saying: We passed the bill, but people still don't know what's in it. Last week, the New York Times reported on Democratic senators in addition to Baucus (who subsequently decided to retire rather than stand for re-election) raising alarms to the administration about how implementation could put them at risk in 2014.

Asked about the implementation of the health care law during a Tuesday press conference, Obama wasn't exactly reassuring.

"A huge chunk of it has already been implemented," Obama said of the law. "And for the 85 to 90 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, they're already experiencing most of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act even if they don't know it."

In other words: We passed the law, and even those currently benefiting from it don't know what's in it.

Next year, a raft of new taxes and regulations kick in, including the contentious individual mandate. Even the fiercest defenders of the law acknowledge that things aren't likely to go smoothly. The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn wrote, "It's not going to work as well as many of us would like, and the initial adjustment may not be easy." The Washington Post's Ezra Klein predicted that the law "will have a much tougher first year than was initially anticipated but it won't be the catastrophe that Republicans hope."

Though Klein and Cohn both still tout benefits from the law, there's been a clear attempt to shift expectations in the run up to implementation. Three years ago, its supporters were selling Obamacare as a political asset to Democrats, if only it passed. Now, the best they can argue is that it may not be that big of a liability.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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