Barack Obama’s visit to Boston on behalf of the Affordable Care Act told us something about the law, but more about the president. And what it said, frankly, is dispiriting for Democrats.
In his Faneuil Hall speech, Obama was in damage-control mode, promising to fix the problems with HealthCare.gov and reminding the public about the important protections and benefits the law includes. And make no mistake, he’s right about the statute itself. So what’s dismaying? The fact that, at this point in the roll-out, the president felt compelled to make a plea for patience.
It speaks to what a public-relations disaster HealthCare.gov, the ACA’s website, has been, which in turn bespeaks the lackluster management skills of this president and his team.
Now, one expects temporizing, reversals, and uncertainty, as well as the need to make the best of bad circumstances, in the conduct of foreign policy; that’s the nature of the beast. And so, even if the process is haphazard or halting, the policy awkward or inconsistent, if a president manages to arrive at the least unpalatable option, as Obama has with Syria and may with Iran, he deserves credit.
But here, Obama isn’t operating in the fog of foreign affairs. He’s working in the well-known environment of domestic politics, and when it comes to the website itself, in circumstances where strong management and attention to detail could have delivered impressive results.
Which is what Obama supporters had a right to expect. The ACA, after all, isn’t just this president’s proudest domestic accomplishment; it represents the realization of a goal Democrats have been pursuing for more than half a century. And that makes it even more frustrating that this vital law has suffered such a setback.
Speaking where Mitt Romney signed this state’s landmark health care legislation, Obama noted that in Massachusetts, Democrats and Republicans had come together to make the law work. He’s right there, and certainly having national Republicans join a similar bipartisan effort is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. For too many conservatives, rationality and compromise are foreign concepts when it comes to the ACA. They are on an ideological crusade. Look at Texas Tea Party Republican Ted Cruz and the smarmy, misleading simplicities he traffics in. Watch Fox News’ continuous stream of disinformation about the law. Witness US Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, trying to pin Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to one-word “yes or no” answers in an obvious attempt to pry free something to fashion into a further cudgel against the law.
Further, it’s nigh unto impossible to shame an ideologue, so beyond trying to cast the GOP in a negative light with independent voters, invoking Massachusetts’ bipartisan cooperation does little. When it comes to Obamacare, the way to persuade those who are persuadable is by having the program work.
On something this important, you’d think Obama would have been a persistent presence, demanding regular progress reports, asking probing questions, doing everything he could to ensure the roll-out would go smoothly. You’d also think that the White House would have known better than to pitch the program with a claim — anyone who wants to keep their existing insurance can — that under some circumstances isn’t true.
Instead, what could have been a sterling moment has turned into what Sebelius herself called a debacle. No wonder the president’s performance rating just hit a new low, with 51 percent disapproving and only 42 percent approving, in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
Obama’s ideological adversaries are gleeful, while those who like this president and support the ACA are left discouraged and on the defensive.
Take away all the problems, and Obama could be using the moment solely to preview the promise of the new law. Instead, he’s asking for patience and understanding as his team scrambles to make things right.
One hopes Americans will respond to the president and take the long view.
But Obama and his team have to learn from this. They must do better. It’s not enough to shift, belatedly, into cleanup mode. They have to stop making these messes in the first place.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.