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Inside Politics: Seeds of an Obama political recovery?

By John King, CNN National Correspondent
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
  • Between Obamacare numbers and meeting the Pope, Obama has a good week
  • Democratic strategists say don't expect too much from this high point
  • Democrats rally around Obama, knowing their future is tied to his mojo
  • Republicans will continue to hammer Obamacare to keep their base energized

Washington (CNN) -- Here's a sentence you haven't seen much, if at all, this midterm election year: President Obama is ending the week on a high note.

On the world stage, an almost can't-lose meeting and photo opportunity with Pope Francis. And at home, there's word that enrollment in the President's health care plan has passed the 6 million mark, short of the administration's initial goal, but still a healthy number considering the disastrous early rollout of Obamacare insurance exchanges.

The seeds of an Obama political recovery?

Worth watching but don't bet on it, suggest a handful of leading Democratic strategists.

One widely admired Democratic sage, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly criticize his party's leader, put it this way when asked if Obama could engineer a rebound or was stuck in a rut:

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"Rut. Voters are not paying attention to Barack Obama."

Republicans think likewise, though they argue their base is motivated by the President.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse says views of the health care law, especially in states with the biggest Senate races this year, continue to favor Republicans. And his view is that "an Obama photo-op with the Pope means next to nothing for the President's approval ratings."

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Democrats know an Obama recovery is their best hope in a midterm cycle that history shows is driven first and foremost by the President's political standing.

So White House allies rushed to cast the health care numbers as a turning point.

"The Affordable Care Act is working," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a prepared statement.

Then came the wishful thinking: "Republicans should abandon their reckless pursuit of new milestones in the number of votes to repeal or undermine this historic law."

To the contrary, Republicans argue the administration is hyping the numbers.

They rightly note the 6 million-plus is the number of people who have enrolled -- the administration has not released, and says it doesn't have, the number of those who have actually taken the critical step of paying for their coverage. Also unknown at the moment: the age breakdown of those who have enrolled; the administration hopes the level of younger Americans gets to 40% of the pool, but it was running behind that target heading into the final enrollment push.

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On firmer footing than rocky rollout

Still, the program is on firmer policy footing, by far, than it was in the early rollout days. Especially if expanding access and coverage is the test applied to the Affordable Care Act.

Again, the numbers are a bit squishy, but when you add 3.5 million new Medicaid recipients to the Obamacare enrollment numbers, there is little doubt the percentage of Americans without health care coverage is shrinking.

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The political question is whether Democrats can use those numbers to make it less of an issue in this year's campaigns.

To that end, there is little evidence Democrats in the big competitive Senate races are ready to talk up the health care law. Instead, many of them are pushing election-year fixes. So the improved enrollment numbers are unlikely to be enough to calm the health care jitters of vulnerable Democrats.

But it's worth watching to see if public opinion moves at all over the next several weeks, and worth watching Republicans to see if they alter their health care messaging at all.

In the meantime, Democrats hope to improve their midterm political standing with a push on economic issues with appeal to Democratic base constituency groups -- from raising the minimum wage to immigration reform.

Veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala says a focus on the minimum wage and equal pay can sell in places where the health care law might be unpopular.

"They are not asking voters to believe in government; they are asking them to stand up to corporate elites," Begala said.

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The odds of passing legislation are slim to none. Leader Pelosi conceded as much when she said a House Democratic effort to force a vote on immigration reform was more to make a political point than any hope of enacting a law.

Democrats aim at key, critical constituencies

Broadly, the Democratic push is designed to show, in their view, the Republican obsession with Obamacare has blocked action on a meaningful economic agenda. More narrowly, each of the Democratic priority items is aimed at appealing to a critical midterm constituency, with special emphasis on women, African-Americans and Latinos.

Doing something to motivate Latinos this year is a Democratic imperative.

Consider this from the Pew Research Center: "Today, as many Hispanics approve as disapprove (47%-47%) of the new health care law. That's down markedly compared with the 61% approval just six months ago."

In that same time period, Pew says, Obama's job approval rating has slipped 15 points among Hispanics; 48% approve of Obama's job performance today, down from 63% in September 2013.

That's a recipe for low midterm turnout, something Democrats can ill afford.

So Republicans aren't surprised.

"They are trying to rejuvenate the voters that supported Obama in 2012 and who have either moved away from him or grown less enthused" about the President, said Newhouse, the GOP pollster. "They are running a turnout campaign focused on their base."

Which is exactly what Republicans are doing with their constant focus on Obamacare: The attacks play well with conservatives critical to GOP midterm odds, and in some cases have the added effect of demoralizing Democrats.

The party out of power has an advantage in this game of midterm intensity chess. No matter how successful Democrats are at orchestrating votes on their top election-year issues, the single biggest factor come Election Day will be the President's standing.

In 2006 -- his "six-year itch" midterm election -- President George W. Bush had slipped to a 36% approval rating, and climbed to just 37% by Election Day, according to Gallup numbers. Democrats gained 30 House seats that year.

Now, Gallup has Obama's job approval rating at 44% -- with 221 days to Election Day. Better than Bush at this point in 2006, but still too far below 50% for Democratic comfort. More than any votes in Congress, that is the number most worth watching.

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