Obama is now winning the Obamacare debate

Opinion

: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other administration officials meet with health insurance executives in the Roosevelt Room at the White House April 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama and Biden met earlier with representatives from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other administration officials meet with health insurance executives in the Roosevelt Room at the White House April 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama and Biden met earlier with representatives from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republicans will still push for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Some Democrats, particularly those in red states, will remain wary of publicly touting it. And many of the 24 states, most of which are dominated by the GOP, that have refused to expand Medicaid under “Obamacare” will continue to do so.

But President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that 8 million Americans enrolled in coverage under the ACA over the last six months is still a huge political victory for the White House, beyond its effects on health care. The fact that the administration exceeded its goal of insurance by a full 1 million people (top Obama officials said the launch would be successful if 7 million people enrolled) strengthens Obama’s arguments that the law was the right policy to enact in 2010 and that it is working as intended.

It will be harder for Republicans, even if they disagree with Obamacare, to suggest the law will collapse, as many of them did last fall. The announcement will push the press, which covered extensively both the failures of the website and people who initially lost their insurance because of Obamacare changes, to highlight more of the successes of the law, which could make it more popular to the public.

And the news could at least make the law almost universally supported among Democrats. Up to now, polls have shown a plurality of Americans oppose the law, because nearly all Republicans are against it and there is a large segment of Democrats and Obama supporters who have also said they didn’t like the ACA.  This news may blunt any lingering doubts from people in Obama’s own party.

The president, in a press conference on Thursday, argued Democrats “should forcefully defend and be proud” of the law, while Republicans should concede “the repeal debate is over.”

Neither one of those things is going to happen any time soon. Democrats running in deeply conservative states like Kentucky, Arkansas and Montana would be taking a political risk in embracing anything that Obama is strongly for, particularly this health care law. The president knows this.

Republicans, for their part, have invested years in blasting Obamacare. The Tea Party, perhaps the most influential part of the GOP, considers gutting the ACA as one of its central policy aims. And conservative thinkers and even some non-partisan analysts note that it’s far too early to declare the entire policy of Obamacare as success.

It’s still unknown if more Americans will purchase insurance (remember that more than 40 million Americans are uninsured, so 8 million is a dent, but millions of people remain uncovered) in the next enrollment period. Those who have gotten insurance now must use it and see if it reduces their medical costs or improves their health.

Republicans are not going to concede the Obamacare debate this soon.

But Obama now has the upper hand in the argument. Millions of Americans are newly insured, having essentially voted with their feet in enrolling.  The president can credibly make the case that the best policy going forward is to look for ways to change and improve the law, not repeal it and start over.

The onus is now on the Republicans to explain an alternative way to get health insurance for millions of Americans if they still want to repeal Obamacare. And this is hard for the GOP, because conservative activists are not particularly excited about spending billions to covered the uninsured, as the law does.