We should not lose The Headline in the day-to-day headlines. This is big history, not small. The ObamaCare rollout is a disaster for the White House, not a problem or a challenge or an embarrassment, not a gaffe or a bad few weeks. It is a political disaster, and the only question is whether it is partially recoverable, meaning the system can be made to work in a generally satisfactory way in the next few weeks. But—it has to be repeated—they had 3½ years after passage of the Affordable Care Act to make the program into something the American people could register for and feel they were benefiting from. Three and a half years! They had a long-declared start date: It would all go live Oct. 1, 2013, and everyone in the government, every contractor and consultant, knew it.
The president put the meaning of his presidency into the program—it informally carries his name, it is his brand. It was unveiled with great fanfare, and it didn’t work. For almost anybody. Crashed systems, frozen screens, phone registration that prompted you back to the site that sent you to the 800 number, like a high-tech Möbius strip.
All this from the world’s greatest, most technologically sophisticated nation, the one that invented the computer and the Internet. And from a government that is able to demand and channel a great deal of the people’s wealth.
So you’d think it would sort of work. And it didn’t. Which is a disaster.
Even though it’s huge, and those who are reporting the story every day are, by and large, seasoned and have seen a few things, no one seems to know how it will end. Because it’s new territory. Does anyone believe the whole technological side can be fixed quickly? No. The president may eventually accept a brief delay in implementation—it is almost unbelievable that he will not—but does anyone think that the economics of the ACA, the content as set out and expressed on the sites, will flow smoothly, coherently, and fully satisfy the objectives of expanding health-insurance coverage while lowering its cost? You might believe that, but early reports of sticker shock, high deductibles and canceled coverage are not promising. Does anyone think the president will back off and delay the program for enough time not only to get the technological side going but seriously improve the economics? No. So we’re not only in the middle of a political disaster, we’re in the middle of a mystery. What happens if this whole thing continues not to work? What do we do then?
It hardly matters if anyone is fired. That’s the fifth paragraph in the Wikipedia history, or the 10th. Yes, a firing would be good democratic form, and it would acknowledge the idea of accountability—someone or some persons failed on a historic level and were removed. It would take some heat off the White House—”Look, we’re doing something!”—so it’s surprising they haven’t done it and odd the Republicans are clamoring for it. But who would want to be the new HHS secretary? Who would take that job?
It was Bill Daley —accomplished political player, former commerce secretary and, most killingly, former chief of staff of President Obama —who Thursday, on “CBS This Morning,” admitted the scale of the problem. Asked whether Kathleen Sebelius should be fired, he said: “To me that’s kind of like firing Captain Smith on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.”
The Titanic. Some will see his comments as disloyal. Actually they were candid and realistic. Although in fairness, the Titanic at least had three good days, and Edward Smith chose to go down with the ship.
He didn’t deny the waters were icy; he failed to slow his ship, failed to show heightened concern. Mrs. Sebelius did not show overwhelming confidence in the days before the debut—there was no “God himself couldn’t sink this program.” She repeated her lines in a way that seemed almost furtive, appearing not confident but confused, and almost guiltily stubborn. Her message was almost always the same: There are no icebergs ahead.
Norman Ornstein in National Journal this week reminds us of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’s iceberg warning—actually “train wreck”—at a hearing six months ago, in April. He warned implementation of ObamaCare could be a disaster. He told Mrs. Sebelius: “I understand you’ve hired a contractor. I’m just worried that that’s going to be money down the drain because contractors like to make money more than they like to do anything else. That’s their job.” A lot of agencies are involved, he said, people are going to get confused, more simplicity is needed.
He was right. I happened to reread his warning while the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned the four major contractors on the ObamaCare sites. The most pertinent query came from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who asked the contractors to put on paper, and under oath, exactly how much money they had made from the federal government so far, and exactly how much they stand to make now, as they fix the sites, and in the future.
There are more questions on the failure to launch. Did Mrs. Sebelius and her top staffers know that the system was not ready and likely to fail? If they knew, did they not tell the White House? If they didn’t know, how did it happen that they didn’t? If the White House knew of the likelihood of a coming failure, why did they go full steam ahead? And if they didn’t know, why?
Was there some degree of fabulism, or magical thinking, or reliance on blind luck within the White House and the greater administration? Many important people in the administration, and those contracting with it from the outside, would have had to ignore various signs of a coming failure. Did some of them know or have reason to know problems were both present and coming, and mislead or fail to inform their peers or superiors?
And there is the enduring mystery of why the president, who in his career has attempted to persuade the American people to have greater faith in and reliance on the federal government’s ability to help, continues to go forward with an astounding lack of interest in the reputation of government.
He talks but he doesn’t implement, never makes it work. He allows the IRS under his watch to be humiliated by scandal, waste, ill judgements prompted by ideological assumptions. He allows his signature program, the one that will make his name in the history books, to debut in failure. In response he says bland, rounded words that leave you wondering what just got said.
We’re all reading of Jack Kennedy. He stayed up nights with self-recrimination after failure. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked about the Bay of Pigs. A foreseeable mistake and he’d blown it, listened to the wrong people, made the wrong judgments. That man suffered over his missteps. He worried about his reputation, and the reputation of his government, and of America.
It is disorienting to not see this in a president. It is another thing about this story that feels not only historic, but historically strange.