To Avoid Bush’s Fate, Obama Must Fire Someone. And Soon.

Outrage from the president over the botched health care rollout is all well and good, but the public expects action.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arrives in the Rose Garden for President Barack Obama's speech about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment website in the Rose Garden of the White House October 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. According to the White House, the president was joined by 'consumers, small business owners, and pharmacists who have either benefitted from the health care law already or are helping consumers learn about what the law means for them and how they can get covered. 'Despite the new health care law's website problems, Obama urged Americans not to be deterred from registering for Obamacare because of the technological problems that have plagued its rollout. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 23, 2013, 11:55 a.m.

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.

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