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Left burned in Obamacare rollout

The health care website's struggles are a tough hurdle for Democrats and progressives trying to make the law work.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

The health care website's struggles are a tough hurdle for Democrats and progressives trying to make the law work.

President Obama might have said on Monday that "no one is more frustrated" than he is about the messy launch of his health care website, but he's got serious competition for the title. 

The flubbed rollout was a punch in the gut for the president's allies in Democratic and progressive circles who fought for the law for years in the face of unrelenting conservatives attacks.

Now health care advocates, progressive activists and liberal writers are left to defend a broken website that they were just as blind-sighted to discover as the rest of the public, despite years of going to the mat for Obama's signature achievement. 

And while many groups aren't publicly grumbling, some are left with real problems to manage. 

Health care advocates, for example, stress that they expect the website's issues to be fixed quickly and that the longer-term impact of the law is far more important. But the site's issues are troubling. After months planning the best ways to direct people to the online exchange, they're expending limited time and resources funneling consumers towards an inconsistent site and a still-evolving set of alternative signup methods.

The administration has only so much money to spend on promoting the new exchanges and White House officials for months have emphasized the importance of using outside groups to locate potential customers and guide them through the process. These groups are especially critical in places like Texas, which have both huge numbers of uninsured residents and a state government actively hostile to the health care law.

One major group involved in expanding coverage, Enroll America, is focusing the bulk of its efforts to sign up uninsured Americans on just 10 states--nine of which rely on the federal site. 

Ron Pollack, founder of Enroll America and executive director of FamiliesUSA, says the exchange's issues have slowed some of their campaigns.

"One thing that's troubled by the glitches in the computer system is that the most effective way to teach people about how they're going to get help is by showing them others who they can relate to and who are comparably situated getting enrolled," he said. "Since we haven't had as many people enrolled, that's not been as effective."

Another group that strongly backs the health care law,, is running ads to attract young people to the exchanges. According to Anna Galland, executive director of Civic Action, her staff plan to "double down" on that campaign and may expand into more direct on-the-ground efforts if needed.

But she's found it "dispiriting and frustrating" that Tea Party groups like FreedomWorks, who organized a parallel effort to discourage young people from getting insurance at all, are seizing on the glitches to attack the law.

"This, I think, only increases the need for grassroots organizations like ours to help get the message out that Obamacare is here to stay and that people now have an opportunity to get quality affordable health care, in many cases for the first time," she said.

Groups like MoveOn and FamiliesUSA have generally refrained from taking shots at the White House's handling of the law. But among progressive commentators sympathetic to the health care law, the site's weaknesses have unleashed a torrent of criticism. After years defending the law from often outlandish criticisms, there's palpable disapointment that the White House let them down by failing to get critical portions right.

Wonky commentators like the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Salon's Brian Beutler rose to prominence in Obama's first term thanks to their detailed coverage and analysis of the health care reform debate. Their columns this month have been unfailingly tough--and fair--in detailing the White House's botched rollout. Klein's recent coverage, most notably his description of the initial website launch as a "failure," have made their way into Republican talking points--Ted Cruz name checked him at one point.

Their reporting hasn't always gone over well on the left : Salon's Joan Walsh accused Klein and others of undermining the health care law by giving critics like Cruz ammunition. But to do anything less would wreck their credibility. They've staked their reputation on the argument that health care reform is a crucial issue: that's it necessary to expand the safety net, bring down the deficit, and build a foundation for future progressive gains. If anyone should be demanding answers as to why the White House is own-goaling its signature policy achievement, it's them.

On the political front, Democratic lawmakers in red states need the law to succeed in order to help insulate them from an inevitable barrage of anti-Obamacare attack ads in next year's elections. Several senators facing tough re-election campaigns next year, including Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska, stood united behind the law during the shutdown despite Republicans' best efforts to pry them away.

In North Carolina and Louisiana, for example, Democrats have been trying to go on offense by demanding their governors back Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. It's a promising line of attack: a number of Republican governors, most recently in Ohio, have accepted the Medicaid dollars after pressure campaigns. But both North Carolina and Louisiana use the federal exchange site and its struggles could distract voters from an otherwise promising election year message.