So it turns out that health care is not President Barack Obama's Iraq. Or his Katrina. The new signup numbers -- 6 million and counting -- on the Affordable Care Act exchanges make it clear that the roll-out of the bungled federal website didn’t destroy the law.
I should say right away that some find the very notion of comparing a broken website to a war offensive, and I understand that. Here, however, we're talking not so much about the effects of the policy disasters, but about the governing process. For that, comparisons can be useful -- if they are apt. For me, the problem with ACA/Iraq comparisons isn't that they were offensive, but that they were inaccurate. And there were plenty of them. As late as November 20 Ron Fournier devoted a column to an extensive argument that Obama’s incompetence on healthcare.gov was pretty similar to Bush’s bungling of Iraq. So did David Gregory. Not to mention plenty of Republican operatives and conservative pundits; John Podhoretz is a good example.
The ACA continues to poll badly, and it’s far from clear how well various parts of this complex law will work. The website disaster, however, was basically fixed by the end of December, probably didn't cost Obama much in lasting public opinion and is well on the way to becoming a footnote.
What's interesting here is why the botched roll-out turned out very differently from Iraq. With the caveat that it’s always a bit tricky to draw conclusions this early in the process, I think what I predicted back in October looks pretty good now: The outcome was different because Obama is better at "presidenting" than George W. Bush, and the Democratic Party was, on the whole, more concerned with getting the policy right than with winning a spin war.
First, Obama. He certainly deserves plenty of blame for the initial fiasco. Yes, there are excuses out there, but it should not have happened. When it did, however, by all accounts he became personally involved, pushed the bureaucracy to make the website a top priority and spent little or no time sugar-coating the situation. When things go wrong, presidents can aggressively push to fix them, or they can go shopping for “Mission Accomplished” signs. Obama has repeatedly taken the “fix it” path. Bush? Not so much.
Some of that was about presidential skills, but some was about differences in the two parties. Democrats after October 1 were quick to pile on, not hesitating to use words such as “botched” or “bungled” or “fiasco.” Indeed, some panicked liberals publicly worried that the website would undermine support for all government programs long into the future. That’s a sharp contrast from how most conservatives reacted to the deteriorating situation in Iraq in 2003. And 2004. And 2005. And even most of 2006. There was little open Republican pressure on Bush to fix the war effort. What we heard instead was nonsense about insurgent “dead enders” and such. Democrats in 2013 (for the most part) demanded better substance instead of better spin; that probably made a difference.
The government does far too many things for a president to focus on all of them, all of the time. Presidential attention helps the bureaucracy run well; presidents, however, have to pick their fights carefully. Presidents receive more clues about problem areas than anyone else, but only if they're listening carefully. Obama missed the clues before October 1. He seems, however, to have listened better once the website became a major public problem. That's not great, but it's better than treating everything as a public relations problem to be spun away.
There’s still plenty that could go wrong with ACA implementation. We still don’t know for certain that the notorious “back end” problems at healthcare.com are fixed, although we would surely be hearing more if hundreds of thousands of people were encountering major difficulties. But the whole episode does offer some good lessons for presidents -- and for people who study them.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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