Fighting for His Presidency

With Democrats on the Hill restless, Obama and the White House are struggling to respond

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Kristoffer Tripplaar / Sipa Press / Getty Images

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building in Washington on Nov. 13, 2013

President Barack Obama is facing one of the toughest tests of his political life: a Democratic revolt that threatens to do irreparable harm to his signature legislative achievement. So far, it’s not clear how he intends to respond.

Just four weeks after scoring one of the cleanest political victories of his presidency over the government shutdown, Obama’s job-approval rating is at a record low, and a majority of Americans don’t believe him to be honest and trustworthy. Democratic political strategists are throwing their hands in the air in desperation. Worst of all for Obama, his own party in Congress senses a titanic shift in public opinion. Fearing for their jobs in next year’s midterm elections and seeing cover in former President Bill Clinton‘s criticism of the President, Hill Democrats are on the verge of open rebellion.

The White House’s response has amounted to little more than “Hang in there.”

In a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill Wednesday, House Democrats rained fire on David Simas, the White House point man on the health care law, and Mike Hash, the director of the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services. After the meeting, that anger spilled out into the assembled mass of reporters. Similar treatment is expected tomorrow when the Administration officials brief Senate Democrats.

(MORE: The 9%: Congress’s Approval Rating Hits the Single Digits)

Central to their concerns, is not the health care website — it’s the millions of cancellation notices their constituents are receiving that directly contradict the President’s now infamous promise that, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” In both chambers, Democrats, especially those facing tough races next year, are considering backing fixes for the law that would allow Americans with plans that don’t meet the law’s requirements to keep those plans if they want.

One such proposal, put forward by Republican Congressman Fred Upton, has been panned by the White House as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the entire Affordable Care Act, but at least a handful of Democrats are likely to join Republicans in supporting the bill. In the Senate, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu has put forward a more narrowly tailored plan that has the support of at least five Democratic colleagues, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Merkley.

“I do believe that Americans need to have adequate time to understand the law and make choices before they’re punished,” Representative Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, told TIME. Breaking with the White House, Sinema also supports legislation that would expand the enrollment period and delay the fine until 120 days after the website is working.

The White House is not insensitive to Democrats’ concerns, and is especially wary of the impact the President’s false promise is having on Obama’s core brand. White House officials admit the politics are brutal. They’d lose an election held next week, and not just by a little. But they are cautioning Democrats to give them more time to get the Obamacare website up and running, and make sure the exchanges meet their enrollment targets.

(MORE: Only 106,000 Americans Signed Up for Obamacare in October)

In an interview with NBC last week, Obama said he’s asked his staff to present him with options to assist Americans who are receiving the cancellation notices. He also apologized to anyone who felt misled by his promise, but White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama’s apology was not an admission he had misled people.

“What the President said, the statement that has been often repeated, reflects what he absolutely believed and wanted the Affordable Care Act to deliver,” Carney said. But while the Administration has promised to get the website mostly functional for most Americans by the end of the month, the White House is not pledging to uphold Obama’s “you can keep it” pledge as an absolute.

In fact, Administration officials believe that the website, not the promise, is the root cause of their current political crisis, providing opponents an easy bludgeon, the media a convenient metaphor, and for those affected by the law, exacerbating the expected confusion surrounding switching insurance coverage. The law’s insurance-plan standards were designed to eliminate poor insurance coverage and replace it with subsidized, better coverage. People were always going to get cancellation letters, but the hope was they would quickly see the new benefit when they enrolled in the higher-quality health plans even if it costs more. But with the website down, it’s all downside.

— With reporting by Alex Rogers / Washington
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