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A Big Flipping Deal

President Obama hasn't won the war over the Affordable Care Act, but conservatives need to acknowledge that they've lost this battle.

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7.1 million reasons to smile.

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President Barack Obama should have skipped his Obamacare victory lap and instead let Vice President Joe Biden talk about the Affordable Care Act officially surpassing 7.1 million enrollees because achieving that milestone is – to paraphrase the colorful expression for which the vice president is well remembered – a big flipping deal.

Let’s be clear on what it’s not: It’s not a definitive number in the sense that there are many questions left to be answered which will help clarify its meaning. As a House GOP leadership aide noted to reporters after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that the 7.1 million figure had indeed been surpassed, we still need to know how many of the enrollees were previously uninsured, how many have paid their premiums, how many are getting subsidies and what the age breakdown is of the enrollees.

[Check out editorial cartoons about Obamacare.]

Some of these questions are not as mysterious as many conservative critics seem to believe: The Los Angeles Times’ Noam N. Levey reported Monday, for example, that roughly one-third of the initial six million enrollees were previously uninsured and that all told 9.5 million people who hadn’t had insurance have gotten it through Obamacare; 80 percent of enrollees having paid seems to be a consensus conservative estimate; and young people reportedly made up around 27 percent of those signing on through the Obamacare exchanges, though that number may well have been higher in the final surge and was reportedly higher among those signing up in the harder-to-track private market.

And in any case, this is only the first Obamacare enrollment window; nearly twice as many people are expected to enroll in 2015 as did this year, and many more the following year. And let’s keep the full scope of the Affordable Care Act in mind as well: Obamacare numbers guru Charles Gaba estimates that altogether somewhere between 14.6 and 22.1 million people have gotten coverage under the law.

[Check out a round-up of commentary about the Obamacare enrollment numbers.]

So in short, the 7 million news is not a be-all, end-all vindication of the Affordable Care Act. It is, as Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle writes, “the end of the beginning” for the law (h/t BBC’s Anthony Zurcher).

But keeping all that in mind, we also need to acknowledge another thing that it’s not: It’s not the beginning of the end.

Commentary in recent weeks and months looking toward yesterday’s deadline contemplated almost solely the scope of the next presumed Obamacare failure – whether the law would fall short of the reduced-expectations 6 million enrollee figure, let alone the original 7 million benchmark. The fact that in the end the exchanges blew by the lower figure and even exceeded the positive one, even after the bungled initial rollout of the website and more glitches on the final day of the enrollment period, is a testament to not only the fact that the law has some life in it but also the mobilization skills the administration was able to marshal in the closing weeks. (It was, if anything, reminiscent of the 2012 presidential ground game; hey now that the enrollment deadline has passed, do you think the people who masterminded getting millions of people to sign up might be available to help Democrats mobilize their notoriously somnambulant off-year voters? Just wondering.)

[See political cartoons about President Obama.]

Republicans and conservatives, of course, are insisting that there’s nothing to see here except for fraud or failure. But the former just recalls their 2012 “unskewed” infatuation while the latter, as Steve Benen points, has them taking on an increasingly Baghad Bob-style mien. They can insist that the story of Obamacare is one of unremitting, uninterrupted failure, but who are you going to believe – Republicans or your own eyes?

Those on the right who keep trying to poke holes in the law by raising questions need to answer one they’d like to ignore: What happened to Obamacare’s inevitable collapse? Because 7.1 million enrollees is, after all, a big flipping deal.