Din of Spin: Obama’s Dangerous Balance

The president needs to promote Obamacare without further shredding his credibility.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers speaks at the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama meet with leaders of 566 Native American tribes earlier in the day at the White House. 
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Ron Fournier
Dec. 3, 2013, 4:43 a.m.

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.

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