President Obama came to Massachusetts looking for love and preaching bipartisanship as he tries to fix the debacle known as the rollout of his signature health care law.
Love, he got. An adoring crowd assembled at Faneuil Hall cheered his plea for compromise and patience.
Bipartisanship is another matter. Although Obama gave a shout-out to Mitt Romney, the Republican governor who signed the Bay State’s landmark health overhaul into law, White House officials said Romney wasn’t invited to the event. The reason seemed clear, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee blasted the principle behind Obamacare and trashed its rocky start even before the president touched down in Boston.
“Had President Obama actually learned the lessons of Massachusetts health care,” sniped Romney via statement, “millions of Americans would not lose the insurance they were promised to keep, millions more would not see their premiums skyrocket, and the installation of the program would not have been a frustrating embarrassment.”
Republicans aren’t interested in finding middle ground. Then again, working with Republicans is rarely part of the Massachusetts experience, unless it means getting Republican governors to sign onto a Democratic agenda.
It happened in 2006, when Romney, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate joined together to craft the Massachusetts law. It was a moment in time shaped by unique political forces that would be hard to recreate in the Bay State — and impossible to imagine in Washington.
As for love, Massachusetts has been an oasis for Obama from the start. But he doesn’t need to be adored now: He needs to be engaged. On health care, he said he now is; Americans will see how long his engagement lasts.
How could Obama take his eye off the implementation of the health care law?
Even in Massachusetts, there are plenty of grumbles about the muffed launch of the Affordable Care Act. Senator Elizabeth Warren said publicly that the Obama administration “dropped the ball” but expressed confidence that the web problems would be fixed. She wasn’t at the Faneuil Hall rally, where Obama pledged to do just that.
Governor Deval Patrick warmed up the crowd with a passionate call to arms. “Health reform in Massachusetts, like the Affordable Care Act, is not a website. It’s a value statement,” he said. He described ACA rollout problems as “glitches” that were “inconvenient” and “annoying” but fixable.
That’s happy talk from a loyal friend. Democrats know the president gave his enemies a weapon they will joyfully use against him, and it’s costing him public support. Americans who blamed Republicans for the government shutdown hold Obama accountable for the messy health care rollout — and they should.
How could he take his eye off the implementation of the health care law? According to the Washington Post, reasonable estimates of the cost of setting up the botched website range from a conservative $70 million to $350 million. That’s a lot of money to spend on something that doesn’t work, and apologies from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius don’t change that.
Why did the president give a blanket guarantee that everyone could keep their current health insurance? Now he has to explain why hundreds of thousands of consumers who bought bare-bones individual health plans are receiving cancellation notices because they don’t meet minimum standards dictated by the law. It’s complicated and would be easier to explain if the Obama administration prepared people for what was to come.
He has everything riding on Obamacare — his legacy plus the mission behind the policy. He spoke of that mission with conviction during a 35-minute speech in which he linked the Massachusetts experience to Obamacare.
“We are just going to keep on working at it. We’re going to grind it out, just like you did here in Massachusetts.”
The words were strong, and the setting was picturesque — historic Faneuil Hall, home to some of the country’s earliest debates on government and the role of the individual in society, as Obama pointed out.
By now, a year into his second term, everyone knows the prettiest words won’t fix the website or change the way opponents think about Obamacare.
Neither will love from Massachusetts Democrats — unless it’s very tough love, the kind that tells him to get cracking.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.