President Donald Trump heads to swing state Michigan on Thursday to buoy his 2020 re-election bid, basking in perhaps the best political news of his presidency but facing fresh risk after reopening his fight to scrap Obamacare.
The president has gloated at political rivals and news media outlets ever since Attorney General William Barr released a summary Sunday of special counsel Robert Mueller's nearly two-year probe into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
The Justice Department concluded not only that the Trump campaign was not guilty of colluding with Russia but also that Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstructing the investigation. Mueller himself did not draw a conclusion on obstruction and, the summary noted, the report did not "exonerate" Trump.
The Trump administration quickly trampled on the good feelings. The Justice Department said Monday that it agrees with a federal judge's determination that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional — a move that reportedly divided the White House and confused congressional GOP leaders. Members of both major parties largely see the GOP's attempts to repeal the health-care law as the main reason Democrats flipped 40 House seats and control of the chamber in November's midterm elections.
For better or worse, the president will likely drill into both themes at his Grand Rapids, Michigan, rally on Thursday night. Michigan helped to send Trump to the White House in 2016, handing him a razor-thin, roughly 12,000-vote win over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Before Trump's election, Michigan had last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988.
But Trump had a net -15 approval rating in Michigan in February, according to Morning Consult. He had a +8 approval rating in the state in January 2017, just before he took office.
Trump won key Rust Belt states Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — which delivered enough electoral votes to swing the election on their own — by pledging to revive their manufacturing and auto industries. But all three states drifted away from the president in last year's midterm elections, in no small part because of the GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare.
A strong economy gives Trump solid footing in his bid for re-election, despite a relatively low approval rating. However, a new push to toss out Obamacare without a viable replacement threatens to put the focus back on one of Trump's more damaging policy plans and overshadow the good news around the Mueller report.
Criticizing Obamacare played to Trump's advantage in Michigan in 2016 before voters saw a specific alternative, said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. But in trying to replicate the message now, Trump "faces an uphill battle because voters have seen a plan" to scrap Obamacare, he said.
After Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, about 634,000 newly eligible people enrolled in the federal-state program in Michigan — the fifth-most of any state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (Michigan is the 10th most populous U.S. state). The state's uninsured rate has fallen to 5 percent, half of what it was before Medicaid expansion.
Trump started publicly addressing health care again after his administration decided to support the lawsuit aiming to scrap Obamacare. On Thursday, he tweeted that the Republican Party "will become the Party of Great HealthCare!"
"ObamaCare is a disaster, far too expensive and deductibility ridiculously high - virtually unusable! Moving forward in Courts and Legislatively!" he wrote. While Trump may want Congress to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are not currently pushing any legislation to dismantle the law.
On Wednesday, he told reporters that "if the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we will have a plan that is far better than Obamacare."
When Republicans had full control of Congress and the White House in 2017, they failed to pass several variations of plans to repeal the health-care law. Further, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that all of those plans would lead to tens of millions more uninsured Americans over the long run. Those forecasts increased political opposition to the proposals.
The Democrats who notched big victories in Michigan last year hammered the GOP over its Obamacare repeal attempts — though it was not the only major issue in their races. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer beat former GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette, a supporter of Obamacare repeal, by nearly 10 points to succeed Republican Rick Snyder. Democrats flipped two House seats in Michigan, and one of those winners — Rep. Elissa Slotkin — repeatedly criticized then-Republican Rep. Mike Bishop for his vote to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Exit polls suggest health care played a major role in Whitmer's victory. Forty-four percent of gubernatorial voters said health care was the most important issue facing the country in November, according to NBC News exit polls. Of those respondents, 74 percent supported Whitmer.
Trump could have an alternative to making 2020 a referendum on the health-care law, in Michigan and elsewhere. In a tweet previewing his rally Thursday, Trump instead brought up his efforts to boost the auto industry. Both the president and his predecessor Barack Obama tailored their messages to the state around car manufacturing, which remains the symbolic heart of Michigan's economy even if it has become a smaller part of the state's output.
"Will be talking about the many exciting things that are happening to our Country, but also the car companies, & others, that are pouring back into Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North & South Carolina & all over!" Trump said Thursday of the rally.
Not much evidence exists to support Trump's claims of an auto industry boom under his watch. Last month, a little more than a million Americans were employed in auto manufacturing, up from about 992,000 in the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, Grossmann said Michigan voters may not notice specific trends in auto industry jobs if the overall economy stays strong.