By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink - 12/02/13 06:00 AM EST
Former administration officials and Democratic operatives say President Obama is ill-served by his current White House staff and must reboot his second term team following the disastrous ObamaCare rollout.
First-term insiders argue the White House’s weakness was defined by a lack of preparedness, messaging blunders and failure to keep the president informed.
They say Obama’s team lacks depth after the departures of longtime advisers David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs and Patrick Gaspard, and suggest new people must be brought on.
“You basically have [White House senior adviser Dan] Pfeiffer and [deputy chief of staff] Rob Nabors running the show politically, and that’s it,” one former administration official said.
The current White House appears to have “blinders” on, said another former senior official, adding “It’s been a weak spot for them during the second term. It’s not for a lack of advice, that’s for sure.”
In the first term, Axelrod and Plouffe alternated at the White House and were seen as the top political strategists for Obama. While both give Obama and his aides advice from afar, neither are now present in the West Wing.
In their place are a host of officials, including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, senior adviser David Simas, Pfeiffer and Nabors, all of whom have been involved in trying to navigate a political storm first triggered by the launch of a website that was not ready.
HealthCare.gov’s problems have put the administration behind its enrollment targets, panicking Democrats.
The rollout was further troubled by the cancellation of millions of insurance plans, despite Obama’s promise that people could keep them, a development that angered the public and Democratic allies.
The first former official singled out Pfeiffer for criticism in the handling of that blunder, which led to repeated apologies by Obama as the White House struggled with the story.
“The thing that I hold Pfeiffer accountable for is, ‘If you like your plan, you can keep it,’ ” the former official said.
“I don’t know where the breakdown occurred on that, but it’s Obama’s ‘no new taxes’ moment,” the official said, referring to the broken promise that is widely seen as having cost President George H.W. Bush a second term.
The official said it was “hard to be polite” about the rollout: “It still escapes me how they f---ed up this badly on the president’s and the Democratic Party’s biggest legacy item in 20 years.”
There has been widespread speculation about a White House shake-up as a result of the healthcare law’s problems.
Obama himself said last month that those within the White House “have to ask ourselves some hard questions” about “why we didn’t see more of these problems coming on.”
The healthcare rollout’s problems are not the first time there have been suggestions that Obama is missing his A-team in his second term, but they have made those suggestions prominent again.
Plouffe was clearly the leading in-house political adviser before his departure last year.
When he left, his responsibilities were divided among several officials, including Pfeiffer, Nabors, McDonough and Simas.
McDonough, who has been with the president since his Senate days, has accepted much of the responsibility for the botched rollout. And he has taken it upon himself to hold daily meetings on the issue with core players. He also treks up to Capitol Hill periodically to meet with lawmakers, who have been known to vent their frustration to the chief of staff.
Other important figures include senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a family friend who has unparalleled access to Obama, and deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco.
Ahead of the healthcare rollout, some argue that too much information appears to have been kept from Obama. He has said he was not aware of the debacle developing on the ObamaCare website even though warnings were coming in from consultants.
“The thing that pisses me off the most is there was a conscious decision not to tell the president how bad things were, and he was not well served by that,” the first former administration official said. “It would have been nice if he would have known how much crow he had to eat ahead of time. No one likes surprises.”
A better political strategy and messaging could not have solved all of the problems the White House faced with ObamaCare since its rollout on Oct. 1.
Spin could not have obscured error messages on an inadequate website, nor made people feel better upon learning that their health insurance plan had been canceled, despite assurances to the contrary.
“It’s not about spin; it’s about policy,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer. “They’re dealing with a policy that, for the time, is being seen as very problematic, and even with the best media people in the world, you can’t control that.”
Critics of ObamaCare argue that the law itself is faulty and will remain a millstone around Obama and congressional Democrats.
Yet many say the White House could have played its bad hand better.
“It’s a mystery to me how they could not have foreseen the arguments that would be made against it — they’re the same as against HillaryCare — and not gotten ahead of the curve,” Democratic operative Garry South said.
South said the White House should have known from decades of battles that Americans are largely suspicious of government expansion.
“This is a group that runs brilliant campaigns, but the messaging parts of the campaign they are very adept at have not really seeped over to the governing side,” he said.
Recent days have provided some positive signs for the president’s messaging operation, with local and national media outlets increasingly highlighting ObamaCare success stories.
If the website functions well, it could boost enrollment on the exchanges and energize the White House.
Still, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane says the White House must focus on “credibility building.”
A survey released last week by CNN and ORC found that just 40 percent of Americans now believe the president can manage the government effectively — a 12-point drop from the summer.
To recover, Lehane says, the administration needs to set reasonably attainable goals on enrollment numbers and website usability that can be accomplished in rapid succession.
“They’re going to have to set some expectations and then make damn sure they’re meeting those expectations and exceeding those expectations,” he said.