December 3, 2013
Considering Which Head or Heads May Roll for a Troubled Website Rollout
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — White House officials, asserting that the HealthCare.gov website is largely fixed, are under mounting pressure from Democrats and close allies to hold senior-level people accountable for the botched rollout of President Obama’s signature domestic achievement and to determine who should be fired.
For weeks, the president and his aides have said they are not interested in conducting a witch hunt in the middle of the effort to rescue the website. But in the West Wing, the desire for an explanation about how an administration that prides itself on competence bungled so badly remains an urgent mission.
“I assure you that I’ve been asking a lot of questions about that,” Mr. Obama said in a news conference last month, in comments that reverberated across the administration. The president warned, “There is going to be a lot of evaluation of how we got to this point.”
Officials declined to offer details about which government employees at the White House or other agencies might be under the microscope during any review of the development of the health care website. But there is a long list of people who have been publicly identified as key players. The possible targets include Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary; Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services; Mike Hash, the head of the health and human services health reform office; Michelle Snyder, the chief operating officer at Medicaid and Medicare; Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the website; Jeanne Lambrew, the head of health care policy inside the White House; David Simas, a key adviser involved in the rollout; and Todd Park, the president’s top adviser on technology issues.
Close aides said that Mr. Obama was unlikely to give in to the demands for a public flogging, but White House officials also said that Mr. Obama had demonstrated a calculated willingness to push people out.
“He’s not someone who screams and yells at staff or who blames staff externally,” said one former senior White House staff member who declined to be identified discussing Mr. Obama’s approach to personnel decisions. But the former aide said that the president showed a clear ability to tell some of his closest advisers that they were “not the right person for this job at this time.”
Mr. Obama did that with Gen. James L. Jones, his first national security adviser, who left after struggling to fit in with the president’s confidants. Gregory B. Craig, the president’s first White House counsel, departed after Mr. Craig clashed with Rahm Emanuel, who was Mr. Obama’s chief of staff at the time. Desirée Rogers left as social secretary after conflicts with other advisers and irritation in the West Wing about her high public profile. William M. Daley, another chief of staff, left when Mr. Obama concluded that he had not succeeded in reshaping the White House relationship with business.
None of those top aides were unceremoniously dispatched in public like Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, whom Mr. Obama fired in 2010 after the general, then the top commander of American troops in Afghanistan, and his staff were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine as making dismissive comments about White House officials.
But most officials departed sooner than they expected — or wanted — making room for new arrivals to the West Wing.
“If something is not working, we will find new people to do it,” one top aide to the president said Tuesday.
That is true with most presidents.
Bill Clinton fired Mack McLarty, a longtime pal from Arkansas who was one of his chiefs of staff, and replaced him with Leon E. Panetta. Ronald Reagan fired Donald T. Regan, who clashed with Nancy Reagan. In his approach to firings, Mr. Obama more closely resembles George W. Bush, who stuck by his embattled aides — including Alberto R. Gonzales, the attorney general, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary — even as his friends and allies were calling for their heads.
In the current White House, an evaluation of what went wrong with the health care rollout — and who is to blame — is certain to center on two areas. The first is the White House, where Denis R. McDonough, the current chief of staff, with his aides took charge of the public relations campaign behind the rollout. The other focus will be the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, where the day-to-day work of building the website took place.
The relationship between the White House and officials at the Health and Human Services Department have soured in the past two months. A report issued on Sunday by Jeffrey D. Zients, the management consultant who is leading the effort to repair the website, did not point fingers at specific people. But the report was blunt in its condemnation of the project’s management before the Oct. 1 opening of the online insurance marketplaces.
Mr. Zients said the website was fixable “but only with significant changes to the management approach and a relentless focus on execution.” He wrote that the website had opened with an “unacceptable user experience” and said that “inadequate management oversight and coordination among technical teams prevented real-time decision making and efficient responses.”
In comments at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Obama indicated a desire to “move on” past the website’s problems to a discussion with the American people about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
But in the last several months, Mr. Obama has also pledged to get to the bottom of the failures in the rollout. He has been especially critical of the administration’s inability to foresee the technical problems, which led Mr. Obama and others to promise more than they could deliver.
In the Nov. 14 news conference, he said, “We have to ask ourselves some hard questions inside the White House” about why the issues were not detected earlier. By late October, when the website’s problems were at their worst, several Democrats openly called for the president to dismiss the people responsible. (Republicans were more specific, demanding that Mr. Obama relieve Ms. Sebelius of her position.) Aides said Mr. Obama had given no consideration to public firings to satisfy those demands.
But White House officials are well aware that some of their closest allies are no longer on message. Robert Gibbs, a former press secretary for Mr. Obama, said Tuesday what many Democrats were saying privately: Someone has to go.
“I think it’s important, in order to restore the American people’s confidence in both health care reform and government again, that the president fire the people responsible for this failure,” Mr. Gibbs said. “He also needs to send a clear message to the bureaucracy that failure on this scale is simply unacceptable.”