The Biggest Joke of the Obama Presidency

When you’ve lost Jon Stewart … you know the Obamacare rollout was a disaster.

Host Jon Stewart performs onstage at The 2013 MusiCares Person Of The Year Gala Honoring Bruce Springsteen at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 8, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
National Journal
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Major Garrett
Oct. 22, 2013, 4:23 p.m.

The Obama­care rol­lout is dy­ing the death of a thou­sand zeit­geists.

The jokes are too easy. But Pres­id­ent Obama has nev­er been this juicy a tar­get or the com­ic bar­rage this piti­less.

In his Rose Garden de­fense of Obama­care, the pres­id­ent said “the product is good” and that it was a “good deal” four times each. He said it was “really good,” “the prices are good,” the “health in­sur­ance is good,” and the qual­ity was “really good” one time each. The only thing he didn’t say was, “Mes­sage: I care.”

Every politi­cian lives with a sec­ond­ary meta­phor­ic shad­ow of huck­ster. But Ginsu knives and George Fore­man? Can Ron Popeil and Chop-O-Mat­ic com­par­is­ons be far away? Oh, wait.

Oh wait. See Jon Stew­art at 5:55 of this clip. Stew­art also lam­pooned Obama for bor­row­ing George W. Bush’s save-Ir­aq-at-the-last-minute ar­got of a “surge” (see same clip at 7:28), while Daily Show cor­res­pond­ent John Oliv­er (at 7:47) dodged Pac-Man in­side the an­ti­quated and crap­pily coded world of Health­Care.gov (where 4’s and 5’s ex­ist in­stead of 0’s and 1’s).

To para­phrase Lyn­don John­son about the Vi­et­nam War: When you’ve lost Jon Stew­art …

Obama’s team has a le­git­im­ate story about the prob­lems with the site. But its stub­born re­fus­al to ad­mit struc­tur­al flaws with the site design, in­ad­equate beta test­ing, and the now hys­ter­ic­al pre­launch hype about the ease of the web­site use — as easy as buy­ing “a plane tick­et on Kayak” — have bur­ied that story un­der an ava­lanche of ob­fus­ca­tion.

The story goes like this. Obama’s dir­ec­tion and em­phas­is were on cre­at­ing an in­sur­ance product in all 50 states that would cre­ate genu­ine com­pet­i­tion, meet the min­im­um care stand­ards that Obama­care set, and provide a range of op­tions above ba­sic care — the bronze, sil­ver, gold, and plat­in­um plans. Obama’s biggest fear was not that the fed­er­al web­site wouldn’t work but that it wouldn’t have a product to sell in the first place. Leg­al chal­lenges at the state and fed­er­al level slowed the form­a­tion of in­sur­ance mar­ket­places. Vari­ous waivers and ex­emp­tions also mud­died the pro­cess. Noth­ing was launched fully un­til after the Su­preme Court up­held his health re­form act. In brief­ings on the law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion, Obama sought and re­ceived reg­u­lar up­dates on the in­sur­ance products and the level of co­oper­a­tion at the state level on in­sur­ance op­tions and Medi­caid avail­ab­il­ity — not the de­vel­op­ment of the fed­er­al web­site. These are plaus­ible, though not en­tirely fool­proof, ex­plan­a­tions for the web­site’s woes. They could help the White House nav­ig­ate the cur­rently choppy web­site wa­ters.

There’s a kayak in this story all right. The White House is in it and up the creek, and it threw away the paddle.

The bit­ing cri­ti­cism and deep­en­ing (al­though the White House be­lieves it will be tran­si­ent) Demo­crat­ic anxi­ety about Health­Care.gov points to deep­er con­cerns about the law it­self and Obama’s abil­ity to make it — and thereby the Demo­crat­ic vis­ion of gov­ern­ment — work prac­tic­ally and polit­ic­ally.

Obama said it in the Rose Garden. “We did not wage this long and con­ten­tious battle just around a web­site.”

So true. But for Obama­care to work, so much more than the web­site has to func­tion to meet the needs of the un­in­sured and the in­sured. One of the reas­ons the web­site is so hor­ribly garbled is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided it didn’t want con­sumers to see the price of in­sur­ance premi­ums without also be­ing able to see if they were eli­gible for off­set­ting sub­sidies. That was not a design flaw as much as it was a ta­cit ad­mis­sion that the price point of in­sur­ance cov­er­age could stun con­sumers. Here is a na­tion­al map, based on avail­able data of pre- and post-Obama­care premi­ums.

There is also the ques­tion of how those cur­rently in­sured will fare un­der the new, more ex­pans­ive in­sur­ance re­quire­ments. An­ec­dot­al evid­ence has be­gun to sur­face that premi­ums and de­duct­ibles for those with in­sur­ance either are or will be on an up­ward march. There’s even evid­ence of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with premi­ums and de­duct­ibles on Health­Care.gov‘s own Face­book page. Oth­er ana­lysts worry that young­er and health­i­er Amer­ic­ans without in­sur­ance might flee Obama­care cov­er­age be­cause premi­ums and de­duct­ibles are too ex­pens­ive. The fear is that opt­ing for a “skinny” in­sur­ance plan — per­miss­ible un­der the law without in­cur­ring pen­al­ties — will de­prive Obama­care of the es­sen­tial rev­en­ue ne­ces­sary to fin­ance cov­er­age for older, sick­er Amer­ic­ans.

All of this goes to the ba­sic ar­chi­tec­ture of the law. If that is flawed, the woes for Obama will be much deep­er than they are now.

Pub­lic skep­ti­cism bor­ders on fear. Ac­cord­ing to the latest CBS News poll, only 43 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­prove of Obama­care. That’s ex­actly the same num­ber as CBS found in May 2010. Forty-three per­cent of those sur­veyed be­lieve the law goes “too far” in chan­ging the health care sys­tem. When asked about Obama­care’s fu­ture ef­fect in their lives, 53 per­cent said it would “in­crease” their costs, and 40 per­cent said their care would “get worse.” Only 14 per­cent said Obama­care would save them money, and 16 per­cent said their health care would “get bet­ter.” 

Polling on Obama­care has re­mained re­l­at­ively stable since it was passed in 2010. But the law is now real, and Obama owns all of it — as the bru­tal bat­ter­ing over its in­ept web­site in­dic­ates. If any­thing, Obama entered the rol­lout of his health care law with a pre­sump­tion he would get the tech­nic­al part right. After all, Obama has from the start ex­uded and per­son­i­fied the in­ef­fable elan of the iPhone/Zap­pos/In­s­tagram era. Screw­ing up the tech part deep­ens anxi­ety about the nontech part.

That’s why Obama must fret about death by a thou­sand zeit­geists. 

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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