It didn't take long at the White House for the government shutdown to look like the good old days. Four days, to be exact; four days for the focus of the press and the public to turn from shuttered national parks and Republican threats to the nation's credit standing to the flawed implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
When President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden on Monday and press secretary Jay Carney held his daily briefing, it was difficult not to believe that both men yearned for those days last week when they could stand on principle and blame Republicans for reckless behavior. But now, they can't blame the GOP for the disastrous rollout of a website they had three years to build. Presidents are at their best when they are on the offensive and dealing with the big picture. They are at their weakest when on the defensive and dealing with minutiae.
That was the position Obama found himself in when he appeared in the Rose Garden. There was a trace of desperation when he insisted, "We are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner. We've got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address the problems." Then, using words never before employed by any president, he sought to reassure the country that "we're well into a "˜tech-surge' to fix the problem."
At times, he sounded less a president than a late-night television huckster assuring viewers that "operators are standing by for your call." He announced that "we've also added more staff to the call centers where you can apply for insurance over the phone." Helpfully, he added, "The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that: 1-800-318-2596. Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far."
Repeatedly, he assured skeptics that "the product" — health insurance — "is good." For good measure, he added, "The prices are good. It is a good deal."
At no point did he explain why the administration was so poorly prepared to roll out his signature legislative achievement, though he went to great pains to remind everyone that "the Affordable Care Act is not just a website." And he was equally defensive about the demonstrably good things in Obamacare. "You may not have noticed them, and they're not going anywhere," he said, a tacit acknowledgement that the critics have done a better job of making their case than he has.
The selling job got even rougher later in the day when Carney met with reporters. Last week, he fielded only a handful of questions about the rollout of the health care exchanges. Most questions were about the debt limit of the government shutdown. But Monday, there was almost no relief for the press secretary, who found himself under siege. Seventy-two questions were asked — 68 of them dealing with the health care controversy. (Two dealt with the impending visit of the Pakistani prime minister and one dealt with French complaints about American surveillance. One dealt with a school shooting.)
Carney held his own, repeatedly noting that there is ample time to recover from the rough rollout and insisting the website is being fixed. But he shed little light on how the administration so botched the design and was taken by surprise that millions would want health care insurance after years of the White House noting that millions were uncovered.