By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Winds were calm in the capital on Monday, except in the immediate vicinity of the White House, where gale-force exhalations were blowing out of the West Wing.
After the administration’s claim Sunday that star-crossed HealthCare.gov had been repaired with “private sector velocity,” and the site’s relatively smooth functioning on Monday, Obama administration officials moved with aerospace-sector velocity to celebrate meeting their self-imposed deadline.
“We feel confident about the site working now as it was intended,” Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Monday morning, following the claim by Jeffrey Zients, who led the website turnaround, that “night and day” improvements had been made.
Press secretary Jay Carney announced that the site had weathered 375,000 visitors in the first 12 hours of Monday. He called it “significantly improved” and said it was functioning “effectively for the vast majority of users.” Carney spoke of a “vast improvement” and said the White House had reached its goal that “the vast majority of users are able to access the site and have it function effectively.”
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl needled him. “Is it mission accomplished?”
Carney knew better than to raise that banner. “We believe we made the important progress that we set out to make,” he said.
Conveniently, figures leaked Monday indicated that 100,000 people signed up for insurance on HealthCare.gov in November, quadruple October’s dismal result. Democratic lawmakers came out of hiding and spoke of the improvements with a spirit that had eluded them in the weeks since the website crashed on launch.
But the real gauge of HealthCare.gov’s improvement was Republicans’ response — or lack thereof. When the House returned from Thanksgiving recess on Monday afternoon, the GOP speakers on the floor essentially ignored the website, instead returning to their earlier denunciations of Obamacare overall and President Obama in general.
Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina yammered on about the employer mandate. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas likened the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich pact. Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas complained about the health care exchanges. And South Carolina’s Joe Wilson criticized Obama’s job-creation record. The issue that had been the Republicans’ rallying cry for the previous eight weeks suddenly vanished.
Carney was right not to claim victory. The rollout of Obamacare this fall, particularly the president’s broken promise that people who like their health plans would be able to keep them, has damaged Obama’s credibility, probably permanently. Many people — including young voters who disproportionately supported Obama — have lost their catastrophic-coverage plans and now must pay significantly more to get new, bigger plans. And it’s still not certain that the health care exchanges at the heart of the law will be viable.
But fixing the website after its embarrassing launch means that opponents of the Affordable Care Act have lost what may have been their last chance to do away with the law. And supporters can rule out the worst-case scenario: Obamacare isn’t going away. Even some conservatives have begun to tiptoe away from an opposition that looked much like sabotage.
Last week, Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a Senate candidate, told a local radio station, Z Politics, that “a lot of conservatives say, ‘Nah, let’s just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own.’ But I don’t think that’s always the responsible thing to do. … I think we need to be looking for things that improve health care overall for all of us. And if there is something in Obamacare, we need to know about it.”
In the White House briefing room, too, there was a change in tone. The death watch for Obamacare had been suspended and the conversation turned to other possible problems: Will HealthCare.gov be ready for a surge in enrollments later this month? Why hasn’t the administration started a campaign to direct more people to the site?
“You now say it’s working with private-sector velocity,” said Fox News’ Ed Henry. “Can you reasonably keep up that pace in the days ahead?”
“The answer,” Carney said, “is yes.”
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.