The White House Obamacare playbook for vulnerable Democrats in 2014

The White House Obamacare playbook for vulnerable Democrats in 2014

It’s mid-October, 2014. On TV, a woman from your state looks directly at the camera as she tells the story of how Obamacare helped her get health insurance just before a devastating accident, or helped her kids with a chronic but common illness like asthma. She thanks her Democratic senator for voting for the Affordable Care Act. She doesn’t mention President Obama by name (he’s not popular here). In closing, she takes Republicans to task for their repeated efforts to repeal the law.

That could be the script for political ads by vulnerable Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana or Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska this year if they take a page from the (unofficial) White House playbook for fighting back on Obamacare.

Everyone knows that the GOP plans to hang the unpopular law around the necks of Democrats – especially senators from red states elected (or reelected) in 2008, when Obama himself swept into office. They’ll be tying them to canceled policies and feature employers who blame Obamacare for rising premiums. And they’ll stoke the anger of voters who see the requirement that Americans have health insurance as an unacceptable government infringement on their rights.

How the president and his party will hit back is more of an open question—though it’s not exactly a secret plan. After all, Obama laid out the basic principles in his State of the Union address, probably the biggest national audience he’ll get all year for a formal speech.

Obama invoked Amanda Shelley, a single mom from Arizona. He described as her as having signed up for health insurance thanks to the law—and in the nick of time, just days before she needed emergency surgery.

“That’s what health insurance reform is all about—the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything,” he said.

Obama went on to detail individual benefits that are more popular than the law as a whole—requiring insurance companies to cover Americans with preexisting conditions, for instance.

He held out an olive branch to Republicans—saying he would work with the GOP “if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice.”

And then he beat them with that olive branch: “Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty.”

Democratic party insiders emphasize that the White House isn’t dictating a strategy to senators who, after all, got elected in states where Obama has never been overwhelmingly popular and which in some cases he has never won. (Sen. Mark Pryor knows Arkansas voters better than the national party ever will, the argument goes.)

But Obama aides have watched as Republicans have bludgeoned Democrats with the gripping personal stories of Americans who have lost existing coverage, or have to change doctors, or face higher premiums. “We are so losing the anecdote war,” one aide to a Democratic senator facing voters in November recently told Yahoo News.

The administration playbook suggests ads featuring women detailing how Obamacare helped them obtain insurance just before they faced a serious threat to their health, underlining benefits like contraceptive coverage, or explaining how the law covered their children for serious but common ailments.

The president will keep making the argument that he’s prepared to work with Republicans to fix the law -- a nod to bipartisanship, sure, but also an effort to get voters to ask for details of the GOP plan.

The Democrats’ goal will be to turn the election from a referendum on the struggling president and Obamacare into a choice between his party’s policies and those of Republicans.

One thing Obama probably won’t do: Appear at campaign events alongside Democrats facing tough reelection fights. Instead, Democrats say, he’ll focus heavily on fundraising for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

And he may campaign (without the struggling local candidate) in heavily Democratic areas of battleground states, or do interviews with specialized or local media that reach Democratic voters. (One Obama ally predicted that Democrats in toss-up races would seek campaign appearances by first lady Michelle Obama, who is vastly more popular than her husband, or former president Bill Clinton, who retains considerable appeal among white working-class voters that the president has struggled to reach).

At the same time, the White House expects some Democrats to make a very public show of disagreeing with the president’s agenda—on guns, for instance. Or trade.

Republicans have anticipated some of these moves. House Speaker John Boehner has called for the GOP to be a party of “alternatives,” not just opposition—don’t just repeal Obamacare, but replace it. And the Republican National Committee is having fun pointing reporters to a study by the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly that shows how often lawmakers voted with Obama.

The latest Obamacare controversy hasn’t made the Democrats’ job any easier. Much of the initial media coverage of the latest Congressional Budget Office study incorrectly claimed 2.5 million Americans would lose their jobs. The reality: It’s definitely a mixed bag, but people aren’t being laid off.

Republicans hailed the report as confirming their longstanding arguments about Obamacare. But after a wretched few hours for the White House and congressional Democrats, the coverage tilted back to take a more nuanced view. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf said the law would actually reduce unemployment. Rather than a decisive battle over the president’s signature domestic achievement, it looked increasingly like just the latest in a long line of skirmishes over the law.

And there will be many more of those before November.