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White House shifts course on health care, tries to keep Democrats on board

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By The Washington Post
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:21 p.m.
 

By the time President Obama acknowledged on Monday that his signature health-care program had serious problems, it was clear the political stakes had escalated for the White House.

And so that evening, Obama gathered some of his top political advisers from his first term for a strategy session. The president himself spent little time on how to handle the political fallout, arguing that fixing the problems of HealthCare.gov would take care of that challenge.

Not everyone agreed it was so simple.

In a separate huddle that night, without the president, some of those former aides — including David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod of the president's original political brain trust — advanced a different argument to deal with what some of them saw as a looming threat.

Comparing the experience to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they warned senior staffers that they needed a strategy shift — one that involved providing as much information as possible to Capitol Hill and the media — or risk defections by crucial Democrats facing re-election in 2014. Keeping allies on board was critical to saving the broader program, so maintaining Democratic cohesion represented a key first step.

By the end of the week, the administration had shifted its approach, opening up about details of the problems and holding regular news briefings in which officials identified a deadline for fixing the website. They delivered private briefings to Senate staffers and House members, while White House chief of staff Denis McDonough called key senators to update them.

The belated turnabout underscored how the White House — which spent the first two weeks of the rollout focused on reopening the government and averting a debt ceiling crisis and a third week trying to deflect questions as it enlisted help to fix the system — has been forced to scramble to fend off a back-door assault from Democrats on the president's signature legislative achievement. With sparse information about the website's problems at the outset, senior administration officials are working to repair fissures in the party.

“The stakes are high because of the politics of it,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a White House ally who has criticized the contracting process. “I think the White House understands that it's important to have transparency, so we're not unnecessarily eroding confidence in the program.”

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