President Barack Obama is confiding to Democratic donors that he may have to revisit the healthcare issue in a second term, a position at odds with his publicly expressed confidence that the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the Affordable Care Act, according to three Democratic activists.
As he previewed his agenda for donors at a May 14 fundraiser, Obama said he may be forced to try to revise parts of his healthcare plan, depending on how the court rules later this month, said one activist, who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s comments. Guests at the $35,800-a-plate dinner in the Manhattan apartment of Blackstone Group LP President Tony James were asked to check their smart phones and BlackBerries at the door.
The president has made similar remarks, usually in response to questions, at other fundraising events since the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case during the last week of March, according to two other activists, who also requested anonymity.
Obama’s answers, which begin with the president repeating his contention that the high court will uphold the law, have led some contributors to conclude the White House is making contingency plans should the justices strike down parts of the law, which would give Republicans a powerful talking point about one of his signature issues.
A challenge by 26 states centers on the law’s requirement that individuals purchase health insurance or face a penalty.
While Obama is discussing with wealthy donors the prospect of a rebuke from the court, administration officials are coordinating with healthcare reform groups on how to manage their public response in the aftermath of the decision.
“While I won’t discuss in detail the president’s private conversations, I can say that your reporting, attributed to unnamed sources, inaccurately reflects the president’s views,” Jay Carney, Obama’s spokesman, said in an email.
On April 3, Obama professed “enormous confidence” the law is constitutional and “the court is going to exercise its jurisprudence carefully,” in response to a question at the Associated Press’s annual meeting. A day earlier, he said the Supreme Court would have to take “an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to throw out “a law that was passed by a strong majority” in Congress.
Yet a planning memo, including a reminder that it’s important “to continue projecting confidence that the court will uphold the law,” was discussed at a May 29 meeting hosted by a group called Protect Your Care, attended by officials from the White House and Department of Health and Human Services, said one of the attendees, who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
“The best way to demonstrate public outrage or public celebration about the decision is to stage an event that shows average people actually responding to the news,” according to the memo, emailed on May 16 by an official at the Herndon Alliance, a coalition of groups that backs the healthcare overhaul.
“The White House is obviously very involved in this stuff,” said Bob Crittenden, executive director of the Herndon Alliance. “Some of the groups we work with have very close connections with the White House.”
Nick Papas, a White House spokesman, and Anton Gunn, director of external affairs at Health and Human Services, make regular appearances at the Protect Your Care meetings, which are held every other week.
Last week, Gunn and Hilary Haycock from the White House attended, along with representatives from Families USA, Health Care for America Now, the Center for American Progress and labor organizations including the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“There’s a really strong feeling that getting out there and trying to do contingency planning out in public is not a very smart thing to do,” said Crittenden, also a professor of medicine at the University of Washington. “What we really want to do is to make sure that everyone is prepared to talk about the law when it comes up.”
Based on the tone of the justices’ questions to the lawyers arguing the case, some of the law’s supporters are concerned that the court will strike down the requirement that uninsured individuals purchase health insurance or else pay a fine.
“The odds are that it’s slightly more likely to overturn the individual mandate,” said Richard Kirsch, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the former campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, a group that fought for the overhaul. After the court makes its ruling, “one of the battles will be to define what’s happened.”
Even if the mandate is removed, supporters of the law should organize media events to have “people who continue to benefit from the law to tell their stories,” said Kirsch, author of “Fighting for Our Health: The Epic Battle to Make Health Care a Right in the United States.”
Public opinion is divided on the different parts of the law, said Bob Blendon, an associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health.
“Nobody wants the whole bill thrown out,” he said. “Nobody wants the bill as it is. The majority would be happy if the mandate disappeared.”
While Republicans, including Mitt Romney, their presumptive presidential nominee, would “gain a little” if the mandate is removed, they may be forced to offer another plan to cover those with pre-existing conditions, Blendon said. “If the bill is upheld, it’s a real boost for the president.”
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