First Thoughts: Has the White House turned the corner?

Has the White House turned the corner on health care?... It hopes so, as the administration restarts its campaign to sell the law beginning with Obama’s remarks at 2:30 pm ET… It’s been a rough 2013 for Congress and the GOP, too… And it all points to a larger story: The American public is upset with EVERYONE in Washington… The GOP’s narrow (but doable) path to 51 Senate seats… U.S. Chamber of Commerce swoops in to help McConnell in Kentucky… And Rick Perry travels to South Carolina.

U.S. President Barack Obama applauds his audience during an event held in observance of World AIDS Day at the White House in Washington December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

*** Has the White House turned the corner? With a workable but still far from perfect federal health-care website, President Obama and the White House are restarting their campaign (again) to sell the health-care law to get uninsured Americans to enroll in health plans. Beginning today and lasting through Dec. 23 -- the deadline to enroll to get insurance beginning on Jan. 1 -- the administration will hold an event per day to promote the law. And it starts at 2:30 pm ET, when the president delivers remarks to tout the website’s improvements and highlight the law’s benefits (like the cap on out-of-pocket expenses and the prohibition on denying insurance to those with preexisting conditions). None of this is new, but what is new is a sense of confidence that the Obama White House has turned a corner with both the website (the Washington Post reports that the site processed 18,000 enrollments in the most recent 24-hour period) and the news cycle. The fear inside the administration is that some might portray this as a “mission accomplished” moment for the website, especially when problems still exist with capacity and on the backend. But skittish congressional Democrats have been urging the White House to go on the offensive. And they now have a better-functioning (though still glitchy) website to do that.


*** MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to interview Obama on Thursday: And we can now report this: As part of the White House’s renewed health-care campaign, President Obama will sit down for an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Thursday at American University -- as part of the ongoing and popular “Hardball College Tour.” As for the substance of this week’s health-care events, Wednesday will be on the new preventative-care benefits; Thursday’s focus will be on the fact that insurance companies can’t use pre-existing conditions as reason to deny coverage; and Friday the focus will be on lower overall costs.

*** The GOP’s own pivot on health care: For weeks, there was a quiet fear among some Republicans that they could be falling into the trap of once the website is fixed, then the public will perceive the law as working. And that’s exactly what the White House hopes is the public’s response. Expect Republicans to continue to try to turn attention away from the website and instead focus on less popular aspects of the law with a smaller portion of the public -- including the issue of keeping your plan if you like it and whether folks will still be able to use the doctors they like. But one thing that you’ll likely hear a LOT less of is full-repeal of the law. Indeed, don’t be surprised if more Republicans start talking up the need to fix this law… but call for it in a massive way, not a minimal way. The rhetoric may sound similar to some, but the fact repeal may be gone from the Republican lexicon would be a significant shift. This hasn’t fully happened with all Republicans running right now, but it does appear to be shifting.

*** A rough 2013 for Congress…: Yesterday, we wrote how 2013 -- so far -- has been a rough year for President Obama. But more accurately, the year has been rough for everyone in Washington. Consider: Last month, Gallup had Congress’ approval rating at a mere 9%, an all-time low in data going back to 1974. (Folks, back in 2003, Congress’ approval rating was in the 50s.) In addition, outside of Hurricane Sandy relief and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Congress has produced almost nothing to show for 2013. Bipartisan gun legislation after Newtown? Nope. Immigration reform? It’s stalled in the House. Indeed, maybe this Congress’ top accomplishment has been ending the shutdown, funding the government for three months, and raising the borrowing limit for four months. That’s it. Statistically, just 55 bills have become public law so far in the 113th Congress. At this same time in the 112th Congress -- which was the least productive Congress on record -- 62 bills had become law.

*** … and the GOP: It’s been a rough year for the Republican Party, too. Not only has the party’s fav/unfav rating sunk to new low in our NBC/WSJ poll, just look at how the GOP has fared in meeting the key recommendations from that RNC “Growth and Opportunity” report from last march:

-- “The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life.” But for the first time ever, House Republicans split food stamps (which benefit the poor) from agriculture subsidies (which benefit well-off farmers) in the farm bill. Many of its governors and GOP state legislators opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans.

-- “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity.” The RNC has definitely engaged minority voters, but then it sends out a tweet like this one: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” (Ending racism? It’s over? That only seemed to reinforce the idea the GOP is out of touch with minority concerns.)

-- “[W]e must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” Immigration reform, which passed the Senate, is stalled in the GOP-controlled House.

-- “When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.” But the GOP’s nominee in the most high-profile 2013 race was Ken Cuccinelli, who staunchly opposes abortion rights and gay rights.

*** There’s something happening here… What it is ain’t exactly clear: And there’s a much larger story going on here. Today, there’s a VERY frustrated American public that’s disillusioned with the president, angry at an ineffective Congress, turned off by a seemingly intolerant Republican Party that’s unwilling to govern, and fed up with a Democratic Party that’s had difficulty governing. There’s a crisis in confidence and competence that’s hurting everyone, and that requires some serious soul-searching by Washington’s politicians and both major parties. Yes, perhaps President Obama’s low approval ratings enable the GOP to win back the Senate. And yes, perhaps the public’s dissatisfaction with the GOP -- as well as the country’s changing demographics -- make Democrats the front-runners to hold the White House in 2016. But something larger is going on here, which could upend everything and produce unintended consequences. If there were serious independent candidates running for the House and Senate in 2014, they would get serious looks; interestingly, though, very few legitimate indie candidates have popped up yet. But don’t be surprised if by the spring of 2014, there are a slew of semi-serious indie candidates in enough places to wreak some havoc.

*** The GOP’s narrow (but doable) path to 51 Senate seats: To win back the Senate in 2014, Republicans need to net six seats. And here’s their path: win six of seven states, all of which Mitt Romney carried in 2012 -- Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia. It won’t be easy, but as the Rothenberg Political Report’s Nathan Gonzales reminds us, that challenge is MUCH easier than what Democrats faced in 2006, when they had to win six of six seats (all held by incumbents) in four states that George W. Bush had carried the previous election -- Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Indeed, what Democrats accomplished in 2006 was one of the more remarkable feats in modern American politics; they swept out incumbents. And here’s what you have to keep in mind about 2014: What Republicans must do is a much easier task than what Dems pulled off in ’06. They have a three-seat head start thanks to retirements and then only have to win in red states.

*** Chamber swoops in to help McConnell: Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to put two GOP-held Senate seats in play -- in Georgia and Kentucky -- to make the Republicans’ path more difficult. And in Kentucky yesterday, the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce went up with a new TV ad to help incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Roll Call: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it will launch a TV ad on Tuesday that touts the Kentucky Republican’s efforts against proposed regulations on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The ad, which will run statewide for 10 days, brands McConnell as “a fighter who never lets Kentucky down.”

*** Perry travels to South Carolina: Lastly, NBC’s Ali Weinberg reports that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) returns to South Carolina today for a campaign-like swing through the first-in-the-South primary state, making four stops in the conservative Upstate over two days, including the keynote address at the SC GOP/Spartanburg Winter Dinner. Perry, who is not running for re-election in Texas, has suggested he’d be open to another presidential run despite an unsuccessful, gaffe-ridden 2012 bid that ended before the Palmetto State’s primary. He also recently visited Iowa, the first caucus state. Spartanburg Republican Party chairman Nic Lane suggested his members would consider Perry a second time, saying his record in Texas “speaks for itself,” particularly on job creation and “some of the pro-life things that are going on in that state.” South Carolina Republican Party chairman Matt Moore praised Perry as a DC outsider: “Governors like Rick Perry and Nikki Haley have a strong message in the current political climate - that governors, in particular, are rising above petty politics to do what is best for their states.”

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