A White House Officially in Crisis

The bad news regarding the implementation of health care “reform” just keeps on coming:

Cathy Wagner says she isn’t political and has never written a lawmaker, much less the president, but with Obamacare she felt compelled.

“I really just wanted him to know … I was so hopeful that this plan was going to move us forward, but in fact I think it’s moving us backward,” Wagner said.

Wagner and her husband retired early. She was a nurse for 35 years and championed Obamacare, until she received a letter from her insurance company saying it was canceling her policy.

“I was really shocked … all of my hopes were sort of dashed,” Wagner said. “’Oh my gosh President Obama, this is not what we hoped for, it’s not what we were told.’ “

She was shocked further to learn that for the same coverage she would pay 35 percent more and have a higher deductible.

“Our premium for next year is going up to over $1,000 a month for two of us and we’re two fairly healthy individuals,” Wagner said.

This is how supporters of Obamacare and the president who championed it are repaid for their loyalty and support.

Meanwhile, concerning the president’s kinda-sorta-apology two days ago, John Dickerson believes–quite rightly–that Barack Obama should apologize for the quality of his apology:

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” the president told Chuck Todd about those trying to buy insurance in the individual marketplace. These people—the Associated Press says there are more than 3.5 million of them—are losing their plans, not because of anything the president said, but because of his policies. Many don’t know if they can get a new plan that will be better than their old plan because the system isn’t working yet. While the president offered the right words, they were awfully late, as it has been weeks since people have been getting frightening letters saying their coverage would soon disappear. During that period—the weeks between when the worry began and this apology finally arrived—the president has tried various escape routes to get out of his original promise that if you had a plan you liked, you could keep it. It didn’t work for him. All doors were locked. So, with no more room, and political pressure building, he offered his deepest sympathies.

Why does the wait matter? Because an apology’s proximity to a harm offers an important indication about a person’s underlying motivations—whether he is feeling guilt, responsibility, and repentance, or whether he’s just doing what custom dictates. When you accidentally brain another customer at the market reaching for a bottle of wine, you rush to say you’re sorry. You spit it out because you are compelled like mad to reverse the damage. If you knock into the person and squash a papaya on his starched shirt, you become a flurry of hands to clean it up and make things better. However, if you cause an accident and wait until you bump into the person two weeks later after ducking behind postal boxes to avoid him, he is right to be suspicious about how sorry you are.

Of course, it is not just the speed of the apology–or the lack thereof–that is at issue here. It is the words used in the apology as well. The president should not have made vague references to people “finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from” him. He should apologize for the fact that he assured Americans that they could keep their health care plans if they liked them, “period.” He should apologize for the fact that he told Americans that they could keep their doctors, “period.” He should apologize for a poorly thought-out, poorly designed health care plan that forces millions of Americans to give up perfectly good insurance and interferes drastically with their ability to continue to see the doctors and hospitals they want to see. And he should apologize–as should the rest of his administration and his allies in the political and punditry world–for repeatedly and deliberately deceiving people into believing that Obamacare’s implementation would not interfere with pre-existing health care plans and patient-doctor/hospital relationships.

But of course, for this president, assuming responsibility seems to be rather a difficult task:

President Obama was seething. Two weeks after the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, Mr. Obama gathered his senior staff members in the Oval Office for what one aide recalled as an “unsparing” dressing-down.

The public accepts that technology sometimes fails, the president said, but he had personally trumpeted that HealthCare.gov would be ready on Oct. 1, and it wasn’t.

“If I had known,” Mr. Obama said, according to the aide, “we could have delayed the website.”

Mr. Obama’s anger, described by a White House that has repeatedly sought to show that the president was unaware of the extent of the website’s problems, has lit a fire under the West Wing staff. Senior aides are racing to make sure the website is fixed by the end of the month as they confront the political fallout from presidential promises, now broken, that all Americans who liked their existing health care plans could keep them.

Once again, we are treated to the spectacle of the president claiming that he was unaware of any problems that might make him or his administration look bad. (See this link for appropriately acerbic commentary on the president’s frequent Sgt. Schultz “I Know Nothing! I See Nothing!” imitation.) The problem with this excuse is that the president knew, or should have known of the website problems. After all, there were plenty of warnings within the administration that the website was not ready for primetime–and that as a consequence, the entire Obamacare rollout was not ready for primetime. See this, and forgive me for quoting myself:

One month before the launch of the Obamacare website, the administration was warned that the website would not be ready for prime time, and failed to heed those warnings. This, of course, means that the following statement from Marilyn Tavenner, the chief of Medicaid who was supposed to shepherd the rollout of the site, is entirely and completely untrue: “No, we had tested the website and we were comfortable with its performance . . . Now, like I said, we knew all along there would be as with any new website, some individual glitches we would have to work out. But, the volume issue and the creation of account issues was not anticipated and obviously took us by surprise. And did not show up in testing.” Concerns were listed as “severe,” but I guess that wasn’t enough to raise any alarm bells at the Obama administration.

And there’s more! “An internal government memo obtained by The Associated Press shows administration officials were concerned that a lack of testing posed a ‘high’ security risk for President Barack Obama’s new health insurance website.” So, you know, that’s terrifying.

So, the warnings were there. This president, however, either completely ignored the warnings, or pretends to ignore them now in order to give himself plausible deniability and in order to ensure that fertilizer will roll downhill and covers dispensable White House aides and cabinet secretaries with its muck and stench. And in the event that the president really didn’t know about the problems with the website ahead of time because he was shielded from the bad news, then we are forced to conclude that his White House is one of the most poorly run in recent memory. Which makes you wonder why firings haven’t occurred yet, and what it takes to get those responsible for the White House’s dysfunction to spend more time with their families. Incidentally, has anyone informed the president that there are also problems with the telephone and paper applications? If not, can someone please take the time to inform him so that perhaps we can be spared the sight of yet another Sgt. Schultz imitation in the near future?

While we are on the subject of Peter Baker’s story in the New York Times, let it be noted that the White House and its allies in the Democratic party appear to be at odds over whether the calamitous Obamacare rollout qualifies as a political problem for the president and the Democratic party in general. I don’t quite understand how anyone can gainsay the proposition that the debut of Obamacare qualifies as this administration’s Katrina, Iraq war, Lewinsky scandal, vomiting on the Japanese prime minister, Iran-Contra crisis, Desert One, presidential pratfalls, Watergate and Vietnam war all rolled up into one, but if the administration wants to remain oblivious to the fact that it is up a certain creek without a paddle in sight, I am sure that Republicans will be happy to leave the White House alone with its delusions. But at least some people appear to be living in the real world. Note the comments of Democratic congressman Gerald Connolly: “I’m livid that this screw-up actually plays into the hands of the critics.”

Why, yes. It actually does.

From Jonah Goldberg’s G-File yesterday (title: “Schadenfreudapalooza”):

One final point on his “apology.” Last night, Obama said again that he and his administration could have been “more clear” about what would happen under Obamacare. This is a small obsession of mine. The White House didn’t tell the truth unclearly, it told a lie very clearly. This is a huge distinction. It’s the difference between mumbling “Don’t drink that; it’s poison” and “Drink up!” I like Chuck Todd, but I hope the next time Obama gives an interview he gets called out on this b.s. framing.

This entire disaster has helped make a wreck of the first year of the president’s second term. And for those of us who want to see responsible government in Washington–and who want the president of the United States to actually be a part of that responsible government–there are worrying signs that Barack Obama is a sidelined actor in the drama that is his administration. Todd Purdum’s piece on the president’s isolation includes a lot of pop psychology from afar, which means that perhaps some sections of it can be taken with quite a lot of grains of salt. But who can deny that the following description does not speak well for this president’s political skills?

No one in Washington is afraid of Obama. The Senate’s newest Democrat, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, voted “present” on the Foreign Relations Committee’s resolution endorsing the use of force in Syria, more concerned about being out-of-step with his liberal home-state colleague Elizabeth Warren than about offending the commander in chief. Liberal Senate Democrats leapt at the pain-free chance to block Larry Summers, Obama’s first choice to head the Federal Reserve, and even a moderate like Jon Tester of Montana, whose vote Obama might well have won, let it be known that no one from the administration had so much as been in touch with him until two days before Summers withdrew his name from consideration—when Tester tersely informed the White House that he would vote no.

Indeed, however he treats his enemies, Obama could work harder to get by with a little help from his friends. Throughout his tenure, he has generally refused to adopt the practice of every president since at least Gerald Ford by posing for pictures with his guests at the more than a dozen White House holiday parties (except in the case of the receptions for Congress and the White House press corps, who could be counted on to make a real fuss).

In 2009, in Obama’s first year in office, my wife and I found ourselves trapped in the Blue Room, next to one of the president’s most important early boosters and major fund-raisers, when Obama’s disembodied amplified voice suddenly rang out and the crowd rushed through a doorway to the mansion’s entry hall, blocking our view. The president had paused with his wife, Michelle, on the bottom steps of the Grand Staircase behind a velvet rope to make brief remarks and shake the few hands that could reach him, before retreating back upstairs. “Can you see him?” the graybeard asked as we craned our necks over the crowd. The answer was no.

In late September, Obama attended a “dinner” fund-raiser for high donors to the Democratic National Committee at the super-luxe Jefferson Hotel a few blocks from the White House. Each of the two dozen-odd guests had contributed $32,400, the maximum allowed by law. The president’s motorcade left the White House for the hotel at 4:19 p.m. and was back at the White House by 5:25. The price of the encounter: about $540 per donor for each minute of the president’s time—at an hour when the only other people eating dinner in Washington were doing so in nursing homes. How much fun could that be—for anyone?

Successive flights of frustrated senior aides to both the president and the First Lady have battled the Obamas’ persistent assumption that supporters (and staffers, for that matter) don’t need to be thanked—a battle fought largely in vain. Five years into their tenure, the couple has a social reputation few would have envisioned when they came to town: more standoffish than the Bushes, and ruder than the Clintons.

Invoking Lyndon Johnson’s legislative legerdemain as a counterpoint to Obama’s clumsiness in congressional relations has become a tired trope, if only because Johnson was dealing with a Washington so radically different from today’s, one in which 27 of the Senate’s 33 Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it is a stubborn fact that Johnson had breakfast at the White House with the Democratic congressional leadership like clockwork every Tuesday morning. Obama has never had a standing date with Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, and members of Congress routinely complain that they seldom see even the official White House liaisons theoretically responsible for lobbying them. There is valuable intelligence to be had from even committed foes. During the long filibuster of the civil-rights bill, as the secret recordings of his telephone calls reveal, Johnson repeatedly reached out to hostile Southern segregationists, simply so he could know what was on their minds, judge the intensity of their opposition—and see how he might help them (and they him) in other ways.

On Syria, Obama clearly did not run the congressional traps. Having announced—on his own—that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a red line requiring an American response, he suddenly decided in September to seek congressional approval without any real count of the Democratic caucus. And he made up his mind not in deliberations with his secretaries of state or defense but after a walk around the White House lawn with his chief of staff Denis McDonough—an adviser since his Senate days—before informing a handful of other senior aides of his decision.

[. . .]

Just how someone wired the way Obama is got so far in politics remains a puzzlement. His aloneness is generally regarded as springing from a surfeit of self-confidence, a certitude that he really does know best. But at least one former senior administration adviser has argued that the trait springs from the opposite source: a basic insecurity on the president’s part, one that keeps him from surrounding himself with strong intellectual rivals in either the White House or the Cabinet. Competent they may be, but with Hillary Clinton gone there is no figure of unquestioned stature. He has quietly purged from his inner circle those most likely to stand up to him, and barely suffered the manful efforts of his latest chief of staff, McDonough, to encourage him to reach out to the remaining slivers of the Republican sanity caucus in Congress.

When all is said and done, this president’s most lasting political legacy may be beating Hillary Clinton in the fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, getting elected twice, and passing a flawed and unworkable health care plan. It’s a more interesting life than most of the rest of us will have, but when it comes to presidential legacies, it’s not much to write home about.

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