WASHINGTON – The surprise decision to delay the requirement that businesses offer health insurance to their employees or pay a penalty represents a significant symbolic setback for the Obama administration, one that focuses attention on a larger question: Can government effectively implement something as big and complex as the Affordable Care Act?
That question has been at the heart of the debate over the law from its outset, coloring the long and contentious discussions that preceded its congressional passage along partisan lines in 2010, and following it every step of the way as the administration has begun to put its pieces into place.
President Obama long has argued that debates over the size and scope of government — of which health care has become the most important example — should not be seen as a question of bigger vs. smaller government, but rather whether proponents of activist government are able to demonstrate that the federal government can be both smart and effective.
With controversy continuing over other elements of the law, the decision to delay enforcement of the employer mandate for a year clearly heightens the stakes for the president and his allies to prove the critics wrong.
The setback for Obama's signature domestic achievement also points to another problem for the White House. It could serve to reinforce perceptions of an administration that is beset by controversies, adrift and struggling to find its equilibrium.
On that issue, administration officials take sharp exception. "There have been a number of controversies that have gotten a lot of attention in the press, but if you step back and look at what the president has accomplished in the first six months, it's pretty compelling," said White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
She pointed to the fiscal cliff negotiations of December that resulted in raising taxes on wealthy Americans, to the Senate passage of immigration reform (although the measure faces more resistance in the House), to the president's newest initiative on climate change.
Political interpretations of the employer mandate decision broke into rival and predictable camps Wednesday. Foes of the health care act saw it as ratification that the law is fatally flawed. "It is a step in the disintegration of what will prove to be an unaffordable, unmanageable disaster," former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in an e-mail.
Some Democrats saw the move as a hasty and unnecessary capitulation in the face of continuing GOP and business criticism. Others saw it as a shrewd retreat that will buy time to deal with what has been a flood of complaints by businesses, though not an action that will diminish the campaign-year rhetoric.
"This gives businesses some breathing room to figure it all out and not have to be rushed," Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. He said he did not see it as a political decision, but added, "To be quite honest, whether it was implemented in 2014 or not, the Republicans are going to use the same rhetoric on Obamacare to attack Dems in congressional races next year."