Before she dropped out of the GOP presidential race, Michele Bachmann waxed apocalyptic about how 2012 is the Republican Party’s only chance to repeal the health reform law. “We cannot afford to have a candidate who fails to understand the complexity of Obamacare or the urgency of its repeal,” the Minnesota congresswoman said in an often-repeated line. “Because, we have only have one chance for repeal, and that’s 2012.”

There’s truth to this statement: if Republicans fail to capture the presidency this time around, repealing some or all of the law becomes far more difficult later, even if the GOP sweeps Congress in 2012 and wins the White House in 2016 with equal determination to squash it.

An important caveat is that as long as there are 41 Democratic senators to mount a filibuster, total repeal won’t be easy. But if Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress (a real possibility come 2013), they could unravel the law by deliberately botching its implementation and potentially muscling through repeal of its less popular provisions — like the individual mandate — before the more popular ones take effect.

A GOP president could significantly weaken the Affordable Care Act using executive power alone: legal and health experts agree that the administration has considerable flexibility to grant waivers from its regulations and mandates. Pair that with a Congress and dozens of state governments hostile to the law and it’s in real danger.

If Republicans don’t capture the presidency in 2012, they may still be able to limit some funding for the health law’s implementation, but repeal would essentially be out of the question — and the road would become far bumpier in 2016.

One reason is that public opinion of the Affordable Care Act may well improve once the major benefits kick in, as was the case with Medicare and Social Security, both of which were highly controversial at time of passage and likewise slammed by Republican opponents as ruinous to freedom.

Most of the Affordable Care Act’s benefits take effect in 2014 — including guaranteed coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, a ban on annual caps for coverage, the creation of insurance exchanges to lower costs for consumers and small businesses, and the Medicaid expansion and subsidies to help low-income people buy insurance.

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