The Obama administration has one week left before its self-imposed deadline to get Healthcare.gov working for the vast majority of users, and a failure to hit that goal could trigger yet another round of Democratic panic over the health care law.
Democrats, nervous about how health care will play in the midterm elections, have already distanced themselves from the White House over ObamaCare's sputtering debut. And that, combined with Obama's dismal approval rating and the threat of a ramped-up Republican attack on the health care law, has them eyeing an even greater break from the president if he can't make good on his promise to have Healthcare.gov up and running on an already belated schedule.
"The president and his team have repeatedly assured us that the system will be working by Dec. 1," Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley (D) told Politico. "That's when I start looking at what we have to do in our oversight function to hold the administration accountable for making it work."
Last week, ObamaCare's tech surge manager, Jeff Zients, announced that Healthcare.gov would be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users — the load it was supposed to support when it went live in October — by next month. That would allow the site to handle a "conservative estimate," Zients said, of 800,000 users per day.
However, that's merely a projection, and the website could very well fall short of that goal. And even in a rosy scenario, the administration has said they expect the site to work for only about 80 percent of users by December. That would be a better success rate than before, but one that "wouldn't be considered success in most industries," writes National Journal's Sam Baker, and one that "might not be good enough to stem the tide of negative anecdotes about ObamaCare enrollment."
That underscores the tricky nature of the December deadline: Defining "success" for the health care law is nebulous, and will ultimately come down to public perception. Even with a supposedly fixed site, that perception could remain unchanged.
As public opinion surveys have shown, Obama doesn't have a ton of credibility to offer. Polls have consistently found his approval rating well underwater, with a majority of Americans saying they don't find him to be trustworthy or an effective leader.
If Obama still enjoyed a sterling reputation, selling the ObamaCare fix come month's end would be an easier task. Now, it's not clear the president can convince voters to trust him when he says, in the face of unrelenting GOP critiques, that the website is working.
A failure on that front would give shaky Democrats more incentive to back away from the White House and propose their own solutions to the health care site.
Thirty-nine House Democrats recently backed a GOP plan to allow users to keep health care plans that would otherwise be deemed unsuitable under ObamaCare. And some Senators, even after Obama announced an administrative fix for that same problem, have continued to push their own alternatives.
As of yet, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has no intention of bringing any competing health care bills up for a vote, meaning the Democratic restiveness could amount to nothing more than pre-election positioning. Still, Democratic criticism of the president and his health care law would reinforce the GOP's message of Democratic disjointedness, and lend Obama's critics more ammunition to further their assaults in battleground states next year. (Probable attack ad: "Even Democrats XYZ think ObamaCare is a failure.")
There are signs that the state-run exchanges are beginning to pick up steam which, if sustained, could counter some of the negative news about the federal exchange marketplace. Yet the administration, in order to prevent a larger Democratic defection, will have to ultimately get the federal site running as expected.
Doing so by December 1 would go a long way toward that end.