The president’s problem right now is that people think he’s smart. They think he’s in command, aware of pitfalls and complexities. That’s his reputation: He’s risen far on his brains. They think he is sophisticated.
That is his problem in the health insurance debacle.
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People have seen their prices go up, their choices narrow. They have lost coverage. They have lost the comfort of keeping the doctor who knows them and knows they tend to downplay problems and not complain of pain, and so doing more tests might be in order, or tend to be hypochondriacal and probably don’t need an echocardiogram, or at least not a third one this year.
At the very least people have been inconvenienced; at the most they’ve been made more anxious in an already anxious world. In a month, at the worst they may be on a gurney in an ER not knowing the answer to the question “Do you have insurance?” and hoping they can get into an exam room before somebody runs the number on the little green plastic card they keep in the back of their wallet.
Everyone understands in their own rough way that ObamaCare is a big mess. And that it’s not the website, it’s the law itself. They have seen systems crash. In the past 20 years they’ve seen their own computers crash. They know systems and computers get fixed.
But they understand a conceptual botch when they see one. They understand this new program was so big and complex and had so many moving parts and was built on so many assumptions that may or may not hold true, and that deals with so many people with so many policies—and they know they themselves have not read their own policies, for who would when the policies, like the law that now controls the policies, are written in a way that is deliberately obscure so as to give maximum flexibility to administrators in offices far away. And that’s just your policy. What about 200 million other policies? The government can’t handle that. The government can barely put up road signs.
The new law seems like just another part of the ongoing shakedown operation that is the relationship of the individual and the federal government, circa 2013.
But back to the president, and his problem with being known as intelligent—Columbia, Harvard Law, lecturer on constitutional issues at the University of Chicago Law School.
The program he created in 2009-10, ran on in 2012, and whose implantation he delayed until one year after that election—in retrospect, that delay seems meaningful, doesn’t it?—has turned out to be wildly misleading as to its basic facts.
Millions are finding you can’t keep your plan, your premium, your deductible, your doctor. And millions more will discover this when the business mandate kicks in.
All of this—the fraudulent nature of the program—came as a rolling shock to people the past two months.
It’s a shock for most people that it’s a shambles. A fellow very friendly to the administration, a longtime supporter, cornered me at a holiday party recently to ask, with true perplexity: “How could any president put his entire reputation on the line with a program and not be on the phone every day pushing people and making sure it will work? Do you know of any president who wouldn’t do that?” I couldn’t think of one, and it’s the same question I’d been asking myself. The questioner had been the manager of a great institution, a high stakes 24/7 operation with a lot of moving parts. He knew Murphy’s law—if it can go wrong, it will. Managers—presidents—have to obsess, have to put the fear of God, as Mr. Obama says, into those below them in the line of authority. They don’t have to get down in the weeds every day but they have to know there are weeds, and that things get caught in them.
It’s a leader’s job to be skeptical of grand schemes. Sorry, that’s a conservative leader’s job. It is a liberal leader’s job to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful.
And this president wasn’t. I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.
People say Mr. Obama never had to run anything, but it may be more important that he never worked for the guy who had to run something, and things got fouled up along the way and he had to turn it around. He never had to meet a payroll, never knew that stress. He probably never had to buy insurance! And you know, his policies were probably gold-plated—at the law firm, through his wife’s considerable hospital job, in the Illinois Legislature, in the U.S. Senate. Those guys know how to take care of themselves! Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe that’s to his credit, knowing he was lucky. Too bad he didn’t know what he didn’t know, like how every part has to work for a complicated machine to work.
Here I will say something harsh, and it’s connected to the thing about words but also images.
From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads. They haven’t read the histories, the texts, which carry more information, more texture, data and subtlety, and different points of view. They’ve only seen the movie—the Cubans had the missiles and Jack said “Not another war” and Bobby said “Pearl Harbor in reverse” and dreadful old Curtis LeMay chomped his cigar…