It's good that President Obama recognizes how badly his administration botched the rollout of his signature health care law. It's even better that he let the country know how angry he is. But, as he is already learning, that is not enough. With a mess this embarrassing on something so important to so many people, somebody needs to be fired. Somebody needs to be held accountable. Firmly demanding a ruthless, unsparing accountability could be the president's last best chance to avoid the political damage that plagued the last three years of George W. Bush's presidency.
This is not just the message coming from Republicans. It also comes from Democrats loyal to the president. No one ever questioned Robert Gibbs's loyalty to Obama. But the former Obama press secretary was one of the first to demand accountability, saying on MSNBC, "I hope they fire some people that were in charge of making sure that this thing was supposed to work." More important, this is the consistent message from voters. They can accept lots of things in their leaders. But they want to believe that they know what they are doing and correct mistakes.
The public demand for competence is a lesson learned early by every political reporter. For me, it came during the 1984 presidential campaign, when I sat down with ethnic voters in the Polish American Cultural Center in Cleveland's Slavic Village. I innocently asked one Slovenian immigrant about Democratic efforts to tie President Reagan to a "culture of corruption" because of all the investigations and indictments in his administration. Clearly believing it was an incredibly stupid question, the man snapped, "Jimmy Carter was honest and a good man. But we had inflation and long gas lines. Under Reagan, things run right; there are no gas lines." For this man, competence trumped everything else.
"This illustrates how voters think," says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "They want to like the president and think well of him personally. But what is more important to their vote is respecting his abilities and thinking he can make the trains run on time." Carter lost to Reagan in 1980 "because of a voter consensus that although he was a good, honest man with the right priorities, his administration could not organize a one-car funeral."
Pollsters do not ask directly about competence. "Our closest approximation is whether or not Obama is able to get things done," says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. "In May, 49 percent said yes while nearly as many (46 percent) said no."
Basically, Obama finds himself in roughly the same position that Bush was in before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, and the federal response was found so wanting. That shows up when Pew asks people to come up with one word to describe a president. Before Katrina, "incompetent" was never the top word for Bush. After Katrina, it was always the top word for the rest of his presidency. Comparing Bush's numbers in July 2005 with Obama's from June 2013, "incompetent" was the second-most mentioned word for both. For now, variations of "good" and "good man" are the top descriptors for Obama. But "incompetent" is lurking in second place, beating out "honest" and "excellent."
Obama still has it within his power to avoid suffering the post-Katrina fate of Bush. "Questions about competence were clearly a factor in Bush's decline in the fall of 2005 with a combination of Katrina and declining support for the war in Iraq," Doherty tells National Journal. Top Bush staffers still bristle that the first M.B.A. president was faulted on competence and, today, they see Obama's problem as bigger. "He's not dealing with incompetent state and local officials," former Bush press secretary Dana Perino told NJ. "The incompetence is on the federal level."
Luckily for Obama, talk of a bad website design is not nearly as dramatic as television pictures of people begging for help because the government could not deliver water to the Superdome. And there has been no Obama moment to match Bush's "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." But Bush was smart enough to replace FEMA Director Michael Brown within a week of that unfortunate assessment. Obama has shown no sign of demanding accountability in this instance.
This president has shown little appetite for firing staffers. Some generals—most notably Stanley McChrystal in 2010—have been fired and others—Van Jones, his special adviser on green jobs—pushed out the door. Plus an IRS official was nudged into retirement, and just this week, a low-level staffer was fired for unsanctioned personal tweets. But that's not much for five years. For the most part, firing has not been a part of Obama's management style. So what he's being asked to do now breaks new ground for the administration. It puts Obama in an uncomfortable position.
That he needs to do something, though, is as clear as the damage being done to the White House. No White House looks good when it is defensive. And this White House has been so intent on defending the basics of Obamacare that it has missed the importance of accountability. At the very least, this furor has totally obscured any message Obama wanted to get out in the wake of his battle with Republicans on government funding and the debt ceiling. Press secretary Jay Carney alluded to what he called "a messaging challenge." But it is much more than that. It is one of those moments—like Katrina in 2005—that threatens to define the rest of his presidency.
Obama does not have to face the voters again. His party, however, does in key congressional elections in 13 months, and they will determine how successful Obama can be in his final two years in office. Certainly, the Democrats who will be on the ballot are paying attention to how the White House responds to the website mess, how they fix it, and how they treat the people responsible. They want to know more than that the president is angry and frustrated.
This article appears in the October 26, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Fire Away!.