Health Repeal Jams Up Obama's Pivot

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama used to tell critics of his ambitious first-term agenda, "I can do more than one thing at a time."Yes, but it depends on what the things are.

Obama began his presidency with five major initiatives: stimulus for job creation, an overhaul of the financial industry, global-warming legislation, universal health insurance and a new "cradle to career" expansion of public education.

In the end, his health insurance battle overtook almost everything else. And now, the same thing is threatening to happen again.Of his post-inaugural priorities, the education initiative disappeared in short order and his proposed fees for carbon emissions died a quick and ugly death.

Obama did get a financial reform bill in the end, but it may have consequences that he did not intend. Rather than forcing banks that were bailed out by the federal government to provide "more lending for the American taxpayer" as promised, the measure is widely expected to reduce access to credit because of new regulations. It happened as lobbyists and lawmakers battled in the background while the health-insurance debate took center stage. He got a win, but not a very satisfying one.

And as for the stimulus, the administration has attempted so many "hard pivots" to jobs over the past year that the president has seemed to be going in circles. All of the promises to put a new focus on jobs are admissions that the issue wasn't getting the attention it needed. While the president argues that his actions prevented even worse unemployment, it's not an argument that goes very far with voters.

Of his starting big five, Obama got one clear win on health insurance, one partial win on banks, one clear loss on global warming, one perceived defeat on jobs and didn't really try on his school plan.

So, the president was able to do more than one thing at a time, but not very well. Health care is such a large, expensive, sensitive issue that it simply overtakes everything else. It's sort of like getting a Neil Diamond song stuck in your head. No matter what else you try to hum, pretty soon you're back to "Cracklin' Rosie."Prosecuting the Afghan war and responding to the constant threat from radical Islam also took up considerable time in Obama's first two years.

But to understand how much political space the health-care law took up, remember that the initial deadline set by the White House for a vote was in August of 2009. It took seven more months, an address to a joint session of Congress, an end run around filibuster rules, a deal with the pharmaceutical industry and some serious backroom dealing in the Senate to get the bill to the finish line.

In the 14 months from proposal to signature of the law, little else happened in Congress, despite Democratic supermajorities in both Houses of Congress.

Now, the president is intent on a rebranding effort. He is promising to reconsider the way his administration regulates business and has opened the door to changes in the way the government levies taxes. Obama has also changed his rhetoric from "at a certain point you've made enough money," to lamenting the "unreasonable burdens on business."

Obama has also tapped several Clintonistas, including new Chief of Staff William Daley, to help him make the transition in public perception from business buster to business booster.

But the long shadow of health care now falls across the second half of Obama's turn too.

The Republican effort at repealing the president's law may have been publicly met with a chortle by the Obama Democrats ("huff and puff" as Robert Gibbs called it), but the administration's actions don't support that public pose.

The president's campaign operation is urging supporters to call Speaker John Boehner to denounce the repeal effort, the White House is highlighting the purported victims of the move, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is railing against Republican plans and Democrats are pushing talking points about how not going through with the multi-trillion-dollar program will actually increase the debt in the long run.

This is not how one responds to so much "huff and puff."Obama's long health-care fight is far from over, and he and his team are starting to understand that.Republicans may not succeed in an outright appeal this year, but there are few in Washington today who do not expect substantive changes to the law. Moderate Democrats in the Senate, many of whom are facing tough reelection bids, are swinging the door wide open to big changes.Plus, with courts pondering the constitutionality of the plan, even the less moderate members of the Democratic caucus are looking for ways to save what they can in the event of a court reversal.

So, as Obama tries his hardest pivot to the economy yet, he will be running smack into health care. And since the law is Obama's signal accomplishment as president, he will have little choice to defend it with all of his might. Rolling back the plan would be a serious defeat for a president already on shaky ground.

But the fight itself will come with substantial political risks.

A new poll from former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie's group Resurgent Republic tells the tale. Fifty four percent of independent voters favor repealing the law, significantly higher than the 49 percent of the entire electorate.

Those are big numbers and little changed since the November elections. That means making the case against repeal or at least a substantial retooling will be a difficult one to make to swing-state Democrats in Congress.

And making the case means spending a lot more time talking about the unpopular legislation. In a new Gallup/USA Today poll, only 13 percent liked the law how it was. While a quarter wanted the legislation to be more liberal, the overwhelming majority thought it went too far.

While Democrats may tout a "softening" of opposition, America seems to have mostly made up its mind against the law.

It is therefore understandable that Obama would want to talk about something other than health insurance. But he picked the fight and must keep swinging, no matter how many rounds it goes on.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News' digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.