President Obama is striking a dangerous balance. Starting today, he must simultaneously refocus Americans on the potential benefits of Obamacare without shredding his credibility further by minimizing its flaws.
That dilemma had White House officials twisted in knots Monday. On one hand, they acknowledged that the cornerstone federal website is not working as smoothly as it should. But you could hardly hear the disclaimer over the din of spin, as the White House launched an aggressive "offensive" from a defensive crouch.
"Healthcare.gov met our self-imposed November 30th deadline and even as we continue to make improvements to the website, we'll also remind the public about how the Affordable Care Act is already making a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans today," said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman. "The benefits of these consumer protections will only accumulate in the weeks and months ahead."
Earnest was quoted in a Politico story about a three-week public relations campaign being launched today by the White House and congressional Democrats. His quote brushed past the self-inflicted wounds still threatening the law's success.
- About 125,000 people signed up for health insurance through the online federal exchange in the program's first two months, far below the original Dec. 1 goal of 800,000. Those numbers raise serious questions about the White House's ability to meet the goal of 7 million enrollees early next year, the volume necessary to make the economics of the insurance markets work.
- Ominously, the Washington Post reported that roughly one third of the people who have signed up since Oct. 1 might not get the coverage they're expecting because of an accumulation of errors. "The mistakes include failure to notify insurers about new customers, duplicate enrollments or cancellation notices for the same person, incorrect information about family members, and mistakes involving subsidies," reporters Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin wrote.
- The Associated Press reported similar problems looming. "If Healthcare.gov becomes overwhelmed by an expected year-end crunch, many Americans will be left facing a break in their insurance coverage," reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar wrote. The story quoted Mark McClellan, the respected health care expert who served under President George W. Bush: "The chances are almost 100 percent that someone who would like to continue coverage next year and intends to secure it is not going to be able to do it."
- After promising to fix the site by the end of November, the White House backtracked and promised only that a "vast majority" of users would be able to access the site by Dec. 1. Having set a vague goal, the White House declared meaningless success Monday – and yet, an untold number of Americans were pushed into a "queue" when the site became too crowded Monday. They were notified by email when they could return.
Obama's legacy, as well as health care coverage for millions, hinges on whether the president's team can do three things, starting today. First, finish the hard work of fixing the site and implementing the complex law. Second, convince Americans to join the new insurance market places. Three, complete the first two stages while being authentic and honest – not just about the errors made so far, but also about the truth behind the economics of Obamacare: Some people will pay more for less.
"Democrats will spend the next year promising to 'fix' Obamacare, but they've already lost all credibility with voters," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "They can't be trusted to keep their promises."
He's got a point. But Republicans have their own problems. If the law works and Democrats ease a decades-old insurance crisis, the GOP's sabotage shtick will wear thin with all but the most conservative voters. Republicans need an alternative to Obamacare. Without one, their political stance is off balance.