President Obama’s passive voice
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
October 22, 2013 05:01 AM EDT
Once again, Barack Obama risks looking like a bystander to his own presidency.
Here’s what he did to kick off the week: assemble a crowd in the Rose Garden to hear him repeat how “frustrated” he was about the many problems that plagued the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s website, promise that a “tech surge” was already on its way to set those problems right and implore people to bear with him until they see what the program can do.
Here’s what he didn’t do: explain why those problems weren’t addressed before the Oct. 1 launch, why he didn’t seem to be aware of them before they went very public, or who would be suffering the consequences for any of it. He didn’t apologize. He announced, in broad terms, who would be coming in to help. But he didn’t say anything about who would be shown the exits.
His “nobody’s madder than me” Monday echoed the kinds of statements he’s repeatedly made about problems over the last few months — “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it” (the IRS scandal), “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest” (the NSA scandal), “This is not a world we should accept” (Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons). He puts himself forward as a man frustrated with what’s happened on his watch, promising change, insisting that nothing of the sort could ever happen again.
There’s a level of semantic distance there, though, that often gets interpreted as an inherent refusal to take responsibility. Obama is, after all, the president. He has more than a little say in what happens within his own administration.
And on this issue, at least, there’s no question the president has been very involved. Leading up to the launch of the website and the rest of the Obamacare rollout, the president was receiving regular briefings, even dropping in to occasional meetings that weren’t on his schedule. Part of the president’s frustration appears to stem directly from that involvement — the question of why wasn’t he given more accurate or expansive information, or a full sense of the problems once they started to appear.
“He’s had a level of skin in this game that’s been under-reported,” said one former senior administration official. “This isn’t a problem that crept up on him. He has been very, very, very focused on it for a long time. He understood the importance of it, and he has made time for it.”
Obama didn’t explain, though, why the kind of tech surge he’s vowed wasn’t ordered before the website went live Oct. 1, and why what most technology and insurance experts agree were predictable and fixable problems occurred at all. Or what happens next.
Chalk it up to a difficult job that keeps him busy, or a personality that’s fundamentally more interested in inspiring change than the technicalities of making change happen, but the launch of Obamacare has already become the kind of “self-inflicted wound” that Obama’s always warning against.
Obamacare will never get another chance to make a first impression, and has already given Republicans actual evidence that the law they’ve spent the last five years warning about clearly had some things to be worried about.
“Somebody ought to be accountable for this mess, and if the president isn’t going to resign, it’s up to him to figure out who should,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
And despite his pre-launch immersion, Obama himself appears to have been blindsided by the problems, then told — at least at first, when his attention was more pressingly focused on ending the government shutdown and negotiating away from breaching the debt limit — that he could discount them as just “glitches.” He appears, as has happened when previous crises have erupted, to have now gotten to the point that forces change within the administration — but only, his allies and opponents agree, a little too late.
Many Democrats were exasperated that the president decided to pivot right back to Obamacare to kick off the week after his surprise infusion of political capital coming off the shutdown. The explanation, people familiar with the situation have said, is just how frustrated he was. And so he had himself introduced by a woman who became the first in Delaware to enroll — but only after three tries. And he followed her account by saying over and over again himself how annoyed he was about what happened, and how focused he now is on fixing the problems.
“Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means,” Obama said, taking a comic pause that drew chuckles, “it’s going to get fixed.”
Private sector technology “experts,” Obama said, are “reaching out. They’re offering to send help. We’ve had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team. And we’re well into a tech surge to fix the problem. And we are confident that we will get all the problems fixed.”
According to the White House, the website wasn’t, as some opponents have charged, the easiest part of Obamacare to get right, or a project that was anywhere as easy to do as the complex technological operation of the Obama political campaigns.
“It’s not a matter of inattention, but rather, an effort to design a solution for an extraordinarily complex technology challenge,” said a White House official. “The administration is making progress on this every day and won’t quit until the website becomes a reliable way for millions of people across the country to access quality, affordable health insurance.”
Many conservatives have focused on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, saying that if Obama were truly serious about dealing with the problems, he would have spent his Rose Garden appearance Monday announcing her departure rather than making vague promises to improve things as she sat comfortably in the front row.
“There’s a principle here — in a company when you make terrible mistakes, you start at the top,” said Rep. John Delaney (R-La.), who’s called for Sebelius’ ouster. “She is CEO of a company that is launching a product, Obamacare, and if they’re going to act like a company, then they need to be held accountable in the way that a company should.”
And that’s what differentiates the Obamacare situation from the other bumps in the president’s year. On the IRS scandal, he was angry about something that he didn’t have control over — and the controversy lay in the charge that the administration had been overly involved in the independent agency. On the NSA scandal, Obama was deeply involved in the debate beyond public view, but had no direct control over what Edward Snowden had access to, or what the former contractor decided to do with that access. On Syria, the president had his plans forcibly changed by developments in Congress and internationally.
On each, Obama followed a pattern that’s become predictable through his presidency — whether on continuing issues like these, or events like the Gulf oil spill or his disastrous first debate with Mitt Romney: he remained visibly unfocused until the point of massive public embarrassment; then, suddenly, channeled a seemingly detached outrage; and finally — but only when the problem became all too apparent — acted forcefully to deal with it.
“The cycle of problems and politics is very much like the stages of grief, and denial is the one where people get stuck — he actually has always been good at moving past denial,” the former administration official said.
On Obamacare, the president wasn’t the one writing the code, but he was keeping tabs. The combination of that and the awareness of how much he has riding on the law’s success means, according to those familiar with his approach, that he feels responsible — even though this was not a problem caused by his own distraction, but by people who weren’t doing their job as well as they represented to him that they were, whether or not they themselves were aware of how short they were falling.
White House aides hope that Obama’s new focus will help provide the necessary pressure to clean things up, and quickly, though no one’s sure of how things will turn out. Already by Monday afternoon, they were starting to entertain the possibility of fallback plans.
“If you do not have access to affordable insurance, you won’t be penalized for not buying affordable insurance,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney, pressed to explain what will happen to people who still aren’t able to get the system to work for them by the government’s own deadline. “The issue is, ‘Do you have access to affordable health insurance?’”