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White House Says Obamacare Politics 'Are In A Different Phase Now'

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WASHINGTON -- With news that more than 7 million people have chosen plans through the Affordable Care Act exchanges, it seems logical that Democrats, who have endured months of criticism of the law's launch, would now be gloating. And, indeed, during a Tuesday afternoon news conference in the White House's Rose Garden, many congressional lawmakers joined the president in celebrating a milestone most people assumed was out of reach.

But members of the administration and strategists outside it aren't yet fully ready to aggressively tout the health care law during the upcoming congressional elections. If anything, their hope is that the good news surrounding enrollment effectively neutralizes the issue.

During a White House briefing shortly before the president made the 7.1 million enrollment announcement, a senior administration official conceded that public opinion on Obamacare would likely remain as is until the president leaves office in 2017.

Other than a spike in support around the 2012 election and a drop in support following the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov, the official noted, sentiment toward the law has been fairly consistent. Good enrollment numbers aren't likely to change that in the president's direction.

Administration officials do hope and anticipate that the numbers will soften negative perceptions and news coverage of the law so that, eventually, it will simply be considered an everyday facet of American life. That alone would give Democrats a bit of much-desired breathing room on the issue.

"All the policy stuff is behind us now," a senior administration official separately told The Huffington Post, noting that the administration had already allowed a delay in the small business mandate and provided guidelines for dealing with cancellation notices. "Having that done and having this enrollment number, and getting ready for the next enrollment, I think we are in a different phase now than where ACA has ever been," the official said.

In this new phase, the primary focus for the administration is twofold: to implement the law as cleanly as possible and to make the case for its benefits and against its repeal. Part of that entails dealing with new insurance premium prices as they arise and are negotiated in separate states. The law itself helps mitigate against large hikes. And some of the changes will be implemented after Election Day 2014. But even so, the administration feels confident that it can manage reactions, at least in its own party. Outreach to Democrats has proven remarkably effective up to this point -- keeping a traditionally nerve-rattled party in line, even during the depths of website despair.

On the flip side, there is skepticism over how effective it would be to try to put the screws to Republicans. Senior administration officials said, for example, there are no current plans for the president to travel to states that have declined to expand Medicaid in order to spotlight the coverage gaps that exist because of that refusal. Instead, the White House continues to put its hopes on business interests and public pressure to make the case for Medicaid expansion.

"I think there will be more of a focus as this year goes on looking at people with identical incomes, family situations, etc. ... and comparing their situations in states that have expanded Medicaid and those that didn't," said the administration official.

But if the administration is content, for the time being, to focus on shoring up (and then ginning up) Obamacare support, allied groups are beginning to explore ways to turn the law against its opponents. An official with Organizing for Action, the descendant of the 2012 Obama campaign, said that in the post-enrollment period, the group would continue to run "digital efforts" to illustrate the consequences of repeal. In addition, OFA has planned a April 23 "Day of Action," in which volunteers across the country will host events "aimed at some [congressional] members who have supported repealing the law."

In similar fashion, outside groups have begun incorporating subtle, pro-Obamacare themes into their advertising. Without mentioning the law by name, the ads accuse the target candidates of trying to strip away some of its more popular benefits. House Majority PAC, a super PAC aimed at electing Democrats to the House of Representatives, is running one such spot against Evan Jenkins, a West Virginia Republican looking to unseat endangered incumbent Rep. Nick Rahall (D).

Jenkins "supports letting insurance companies charge women more for health care," the ad's narrator says. "Mr. Jenkins, we can't go back to those days."

Matt Thornton, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, said the ad began airing on March 15 and has $125,000 behind it. He acknowledged that there were few other spots quite like it being aired. The vast majority of Obamacare ads being run by Democrats express support for the law alongside vows to fix the problems with it.

But Thornton expected that the dynamics would change -- not across the board but in individual races in districts where the benefits of the Affordable Care Act were pronounced.

"There is no way we are going to be able to sidestep the issue of Obamacare," he said. "So we might as well make these Republicans who are advocating repeal pay for that position. By running ads like this, we are encouraging them to answer difficult questions about what it is they are hoping to accomplish."

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