Obama strives to pivot from health care woes

President Barack Obama, stung by the enduring controversy over his health care overhaul, tried Tuesday to go on the offensive. Republicans waited with a new round of congressional hearings.

Obama told hundreds of handpicked supporters gathered at the White House complex that America needed to move beyond the health care website to focus on the benefits of the law.

“What’s important for everybody to remember is not only that the law has already helped millions of people, but that there are millions more who stand to be helped, and we’ve got to make sure they know that,” the president said. “Our poor execution in the first couple months on the website clouded the fact that there are a whole bunch of people who stand to benefit.”

Obama, who has seen his approval rating plunge to the lowest levels of his presidency, will spend the next month on a renewed effort to tout the law’s benefits. He plans to stress how the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, will slow growth in health care costs, provide preventative care and assist those with pre-existing conditions.

Health care is shaping up as a defining issue for the two major political parties as the 2014 campaign year begins. Democrats on Capitol Hill, many who have begun to worry about the law’s impact on next year’s elections, issued statements praising Obama’s speech, in a show of solidarity. Republicans quickly fired back.

Obama has been dogged in recent weeks by problems with the health care website, and Tuesday’s event was an effort to pivot attention from that turmoil. While he did not go as far as declaring the website fixed, the president said the administration met its goal of making the website usable for the vast majority of visitors by the end of November.

More than 1 million people visited the website Monday, more than doubling its typical weekday volume of users. Some were asked to return later because of the high volume.

The site, which serves as the portal for the federal health insurance marketplace, can now accommodate 50,000 simultaneous users and more than 800,000 daily visitors. Offices expect a surge this month as people enroll in coverage in order to have insurance that begins on Jan. 1.

Obama and Republicans agreed on one thing Tuesday: Regardless of the website’s status, it’s time to move on to a more extensive health care debate.

The House of Representatives plans three separate hearings Wednesday and another Friday on the health care plan. Each will be chaired by a veteran Republican, and each is expected to attract hordes of television cameras and social media bloggers and tweeters.

Since such hearings tend to last at least three hours each – far longer than an Obama event or a press briefing by spokesman Jay Carney – such hearings can dominate the blogosphere for hours. Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made it clear that the party was ready to attack Obamacare on several fronts.

“It’s not just a broken website,” he said. “This bill is fundamentally flawed, causing people to lose the doctor of their choice, causing them to lose their health plan. And if that wasn’t enough, they’re having to pay much higher prices at the same time.”

So far, health care has proven an important balm for a Republican Party whose popularity plunged during the October government shutdown.

Views of both parties remain dismal, but Republicans have rebounded. A CNN/ORC International poll taken Nov. 18-20, when controversy was raging over the health care site, found that if elections were held now, 49 percent would vote for or lean toward a Republican congressional candidate, while 47 percent would choose a Democrat. In the days after the shutdown ended Oct. 16, Democrats had a 50-42 edge.

Republicans have made health care emblematic of all that conservatives dislike about government, that it’s too big, intrusive and expensive, not to mention deceptive.

They seized on a report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that said the Internal Revenue Service needs to adhere more closely to security, fraud detection and risk management controls in its oversight of the program that provides federal subsidies for people purchasing marketplace health coverage.

Obama was defiant Tuesday.

“If I’ve got to fight another three years to make sure this law works, then that’s what I’ll do. That’s what we’ll do,” Obama said. “But we’re not repealing it as long as I’m president.”

Republicans insisted they are on the side of the people.

“When you look at Obamacare, what you see is a government-centered health care delivery system. That’s not what the American people want,” Boehner said. “The American people want to be able to pick their own type of health insurance; they want to be able to pick their own doctor; they want to be able to pick their own hospital. That’s what a patient-centered health care system looks like.”

Tony Pugh of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.