By pushing back until 2015 the requirement that all firms with more than 50 employees provide health coverage to their workers, President Obama is looking to navigate tough terrain in much the same way he did with environmental policy, immigration and even other provisions of Obamacare: call a timeout in hopes of cultivating more fertile ground for polarizing executive actions.
But what administration officials describe as flexibility, critics both on the left and the right dismiss as brazen acts of political expediency.
"There was a very visible pattern, especially in 2012, of this administration not going through with planned regulations," said Susan Dudley, director of the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University and an Office of Management and Budget official under President George W. Bush. "Lofty goals appeal to voters, but developing regulations that might actually achieve those goals is not easy. Regulations often have unintended consequences and can hinder economic growth, which is a particular concern right now."
First, Obama held off on tighter carbon emission standards for coal power plants ahead of his 2012 re-election battle, even though his Environmental Protection Agency was ready to unveil stricter rules and his administration faced court-ordered deadlines to do so. And now the most rigorous crackdown on greenhouse gases won't be finalized until June 2015, when the president is fully in lame-duck mode. At the same time, Obama has yet to say whether he would sign off on the Keystone XL pipeline, a much-studied project that would carry oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries but has pitted environmentalists against labor unions -- ensuring the president will alienate at least part of his political base.
Even on health care, the employer mandate decision follows similar capitulations by the White House. In the earliest stages of implementing Obamacare, the administration granted waivers from some of the tougher coverage standards to more than 1,200 employers; then states were given extension after extension to comply with the rules; and lastly, the deadline for wary GOP governors to expand Medicaid was obliterated altogether.
Regardless of Obama's political motivations, his administration has shown a growing hesitancy to pull the trigger on policies up against substantial blowback. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, OMB figures show a nearly 20 percent decline in finalized regulations with an economic impact of more than $100 million.
The most recent concession on Obamacare has heightened scrutiny of the rest of the president's signature legislative achievement.
The individual mandate, requiring all people to purchase health insurance or pay a fine, will still go into effect, but the federal government had planned to offer tax subsidies to purchase health insurance based on data provided by employers. Without requiring companies to meet the mandate until 2015, the government will now allow individuals to self-report their incomes -- a practice that critics contend will lead to widespread fraud and abuse.
And in choosing to delay or ignore a series of laws on the books, Obama is stoking congressional charges that he is enforcing statutes based on political impulses rather than constitutional authority.
Last year, for example, Obama unilaterally decided to halt deportations of younger illegal immigrants eligible for the so-called Dream Act rather than make a fresh bid for comprehensive immigration reform.
"They can't get their act together," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said of the administration's habit of sidestepping the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "They should go back to Congress and request permission to amend the law. What they are doing will backfire because it looks like such a blatantly political move."
For their part, White House officials scoff at such charges, saying the president is willing to compromise to improve heavily debated regulations.
"The idea that Republicans are unhappy -- the same Republicans who have been pushing for a full repeal of the health care law seemingly every day -- strikes me as rich," an administration official told the Washington Examiner. "This decision wasn't about waving the white flag but making sure we get [the policy] right."