The New York Times has an instructive account, Inside the Race to Rescue a Health Care Site, and Obama, of the scrambling in the Administration to deal with the beyond-redeption-by-the-power-of-spin disaster of the Healthcare.gov launch. It’s insider-ish because the Grey Lady was given special access (they got to visit the “war room”!) and by happenstance or design, skipped over how it was clear to the parties working on the website that the project was in horrific shape months before the official launch. Word of serious shortcomings was leaking out of the hermetic Administration more than six months prior to launch. For instance, Henry Chao, who was in charge of technology of the exchanges was reported back in March of having stated at a conference that he was nervous and was already setting his goals astonishingly low: “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience.” Later reports have given further details of remarkable planning failures, such as not having a firm hired to act as project overseer/integrator, and of having the White House completely overhaul the “customer” forms in July, the refusal to revise deadlines even as the site failed with a mere 200 user trial, and the lack of meaningful testing and debugging.
Consider this part of the Times account:
With billions of dollars at stake for their industry, insurers voiced apprehensions even before the website’s start about the lack of thorough testing, and [industry lobbyist] Ms. [Karen] Ignagni presented a list of ideas to the Obama administration about what to do if the website malfunctioned. But, an insurance executive briefed on the meeting said, their concerns were waved off.
Now get a load of this: word of how bad things were had gotten out to the insurers so that they had enough time to discuss among themselves what to do, agree on some possible remedies, work up a presentation and get an audience with Administration officials. That is not a process that happens overnight. Yet Obama somehow didn’t know, didn’t care, or perhaps worst of all, believed if he just kept insisting things would get done on time, that would happen, that the imperial power of the Presidential edict would clear all obstacles.
So having the Times depict the Administration as surprised at the horrorshow of the October launch is either a sign of reporter credulity or astonishing denial on the part of Administration officials.
But the most damaging part of the piece isn’t what it says or neglects to say about the Obamacare tsuris. It’s that it reveals Obama to have been recklessly indifferent about the execution of what was billed as his signature policy initiative. One can only imagine how inattentive he is to other matters you’d expect him to take seriously.
I had been skeptical of Ron Suskind’s portrayal in his book Confidence Men of Obama as being not responsible for banking-related policy, that Geithner had quietly assumed control and Obama was therefore not really to blame. I don’t buy the effort to exculpate Obama. The president is ultimately responsible unless his troops made a deliberate effort, contrary to normal policy and/or instructions, to conceal what they were up to. But in light of Obama’s at best lack of curiosity about how the Obamacare launch was going, it’s not hard to believe Geithner was able to run financial services policy with little oversight or interference. Rather than taking ground, he may simply have been filling a vacuum.
Look at the anecdote that begins the story:
As a small coterie of grim-faced advisers shuffled into the Oval Office on the evening of Oct. 15, President Obama’s chief domestic accomplishment was falling apart 24 miles away, at a bustling high-tech data center in suburban Virginia…. And inside the White House, after initially saying too much traffic was to blame, Mr. Obama’s closest confidants had few good answers.
The political dangers were clear to everyone in the room: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary; Marilyn Tavenner, the Medicare chief; Denis McDonough, the chief of staff; Todd Park, the chief technology officer; and others. For 90 excruciating minutes, a furious and frustrated president peppered his team with questions, drilling into the arcane minutiae of web design as he struggled to understand the scope of a crisis that suddenly threatened his presidency.
“We created this problem we didn’t need to create,” Mr. Obama said, according to one adviser who, like several interviewed, insisted on anonymity to share details of the private session. “And it’s of our own doing, and it’s our most important initiative.”
October 15? Obama can’t be bothered to understand what is amiss after punishing press coverage until October 15? The 1982 Tylenol tampering is the gold standard for how to deal with a product nightmare, in this case, poisonings. Here, the company was blindsided and not to blame. Yet it took responsibility and recalled all of its product immediately. By contrast, the Administration, precisely because it is the source of this disaster, is conflicted between fixing the problem, and its well-honed reflex of relying on PR as the remedy for any ailment.
And even after being crucified for telling whoppers like “You can keep your doctor, you can keep your insurance,” Team Obama seems incapable of plain, unvarnished statements. To wit:
But while the contractors were grateful to [management consultant] Mr.[Jeffrey] Zients for helping to create order, they saw the administration’s “tech surge” — announced by Mr. Obama in the Rose Garden a few days before QSSI took over — as mostly an exercise in public relations.
The announcement conjured images of an army of software engineers descending on the project. In fact, the surge centered on about a half-dozen people who had taken leave from various technology companies to join the effort. They included Michael Dickerson, a site reliability engineer at Google who had also worked on Mr. Obama’s campaign and now draws praise from contractors as someone who is “actually making a difference,” one said.
Even so, one person working on the project said, “Surge was probably an overstatement.”
The Times however engages in other types of puffery:
Out of that tense Oval Office meeting grew a frantic effort aimed at rescuing not only the insurance portal and Mr. Obama’s credibility, but also the Democratic philosophy that an activist government can solve big, complex social problems. Today, that rescue effort is far from complete.
Um, Obama is a Republican with Democratic party identity politics protective coloring. He’s a huge admirer of Reagan, who expanded Federal deficits massively while promising to rein them in. But in classic “Nixon goes to China” fashion, it will take a putative Democrat to dismantle the New Deal, and Obama is still keen to achieve that end despite his ACA setbacks. And let us not forget that what made Obamacare into a Rub Goldberg machine was not the idea of having the Federal government pay for healthcare, which would have been comparatively simple to implement. It was the desire to provide for a faux “market” solution while further entrenching and enriching the health insurance companies.
And the Times closes the article with this vignette, clearly missing the irony:
“I’m absolutely sure we’re going to make sure this country provides affordable health care for every single American,” Mr. Obama told the donors. “And if I have to fight for another three years to make sure that happens, I will do so.”
Obamacare was never intended to cover all Americans. But Obama seems incapable of refraining from lying.