As Spotlight Shifts, Obama Plays Defense

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks 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.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 21, 2013, 5:32 p.m.

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.

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