No, it isn’t the media trying to whip up a narrative. No, people who write it aren’t on the payroll of the Koch Brothers. The fact is that President Barack Obama’s rollout of implementation of his health care law has been abysmal and compounded by the huge number of sound bites of him insisting Americans would not lose their present insurance and doctors if they didn’t want to. And, yes, the long term potential for political damage to the Democrats and the concept of government many Democrats, liberals and moderate have embraced will likely face a harder battle in the future.
The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, always one of the best stand-back-and-analyze writers summarizes what has politically occurred and could well happen in the future:
President Obama’s health care law is now compounding a political problem it was meant to solve: the generation-long loss of faith in government activism, particularly among the white middle class.
For decades, Democratic strategists have viewed universal health care as their best opportunity to reverse the doubt among many voters, especially whites, that government programs can tangibly benefit their families. Now the catastrophic rollout of the health law threatens instead to reinforce those doubts. That outcome could threaten Democratic priorities for years.
There are several reasons for this. One of them is that legislation to insure more people was correctly needed in American and a failed goal of many Presidents over the years. Obama made it the centerpiece of his Presidency and addressed the issue with enormous passion. The idea of a website as the hub perfectly fit the 21st century. The dominance of this issue is likely imprinted on the minds of young people who had been leaning Democratic today.
Plus, if you recall, some pundits over the years suggested Obama was the anti-Reagan who would reverse the idea that big government was bad, overreached and bungled issues it tried to tackle. More Brownstein:
Even before its disastrous launch, the health care law faced anxiety about its goals. On the plan’s best days, polls found Americans split almost evenly on whether reform would benefit the country overall. But even then, nothing approaching a majority ever said the law would help their own families; among whites, fewer than one-third said they expected to personally benefit. Far more whites said the law would help the poor or uninsured. That meant, as the law debuted, most whites viewed health care more like food stamps than Social Security.
He puts this into perspective with some needed balance:
With its chaotic launch, the administration has now added derision over the law’s execution to suspicion about its motivation. In fairness, the health care law, which reported modest but not horrific first-month enrollment numbers, is not the first social program to stumble out of the gate. Social Security initially faced what one historian called “grave administrative difficulties.” Although the Children’s Health Insurance Program passed under Bill Clinton is now widely praised, enrollment grew slowly, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted this week.
Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s Public Policy School and an expert in public administration, points to other mitigating factors in the health law’s struggles: the technological complexity of constructing online exchanges assigned so many tasks; the unexpectedly large number of states that refused to establish their own exchanges; and an unprecedented level of political resistance during implementation.
And yet even with those caveats, Kettl says no major federal initiative has failed so thoroughly upon its unveiling since the ballistic-missile program’s first years in the 1950s produced a succession of explosions and failures to launch.
If most Americans conclude Republicans are right about the health care law, that judgment would inevitably deepen doubts about other government initiatives. In this world, Democrats could still hold the White House in 2016 around cultural affinity, but they would likely struggle to achieve much if they do. If the president can’t extinguish the flames surrounding Obamacare, this runway explosion could reverberate for years.
It’s a hefty “if.”
And, yes, the flames now can’t be blamed on Republicans but on what historians will likely call at best, a poorly administered launch and an incomplete explanation from Obama on what the law would really do to at worst gross managerial incompetence and a political decision that a full explanation including how a small portion of Americans could lose their “junk” insurance might interfere with what turned out to be the law’s not-ready-for-primetime website launch.
UPDATE: Two other reactions to Bernstein’s piece.
As Brownstein indicates, Democrats are crazy if they head to the hills now, or push for “fixes” to the largely political problem of individual policy cancellations that make “rate shock” more likely and threaten the whole law. In his defense, Bill Clinton’s comments that touched off the latest “fix” frenzy among a small but crucial segment of Senate Democrats and forced Obama’s hand, were originally focused only on a very small group of young and healthy people with existing insurance policies who don’t qualify for Obamacare subsidies. But with the smell of panic in the air amidst the unholy howls of impending triumph from the most reactionary of the conservative wolf pack, it’s not a great time for nuance.
Democrats better hang as tough on this issue as they possibly can. As Brownstein says, the stakes are very high.
And he needs to ride herd on his people and get in their faces and asked them pointed questions and demand responsive and fast answers. This is not how he has conceived his job up to now. But he needs to be aware that his job, as a result of this massive cock-up, has changed definitionally, just as Neville Chamberlain’s job changed when the war started. The war was the war; everything else was secondary. Same thing here. Salvaging health care is far and away the number one job of the remaining years of his presidency. My historical analogy, I am well aware, is not terribly comforting.
Brownstein quotes one academic as saying that this is the worst government roll-out in 60 years, when the ballistic missile program debuted with a serious of runway catastrophes. Sixty years! And it happened, let’s face it–he faced it yesterday at his news conference–because he wasn’t on top of things the way he was supposed to be.
By the way, one can hold this position and be mad at Obama about this and still also be mad about how the Republicans have tried to sabotage the law. They undeniably have. They’re like the kid who puts antifreeze in the gas tank and then says see, I told you that car wouldn’t run. They’re total bad faith actors. For them and their followers to sit back and say that the problems are all Obama’s fault is dishonest and absurd.
However, it’s not as if their opposition to making the thing work was unknown. And the website problems and the promise about no cancellations are Obama’s fault, not theirs. He has probably about a year to go from being the ACA’s Chamberlain to its Churchill, and he’d better take it more seriously than he’s ever taken anything.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.