Obamacare and the crisis of incompetence

    What is it with second-term presidents, anyway? Nixon supposedly knew nothing about Watergate, Reagan professed to know nothing about Iran-Contra, Bush clearly knew nothing about his administration’s ineptitude during the Katrina cleanup, Clinton at first claimed to know nothing sexual about “that woman, Miss Lewinsky” — and here we go again.

    What did Barack Obama know, or prefer not to know, about the burgeoning technical nightmares at healthcare.gov? Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified Wednesday that she had sent Obama “regular reports” about the launch preparations, and that she told him “we were ready to go” on schedule. Presumably those “regular reports” were relentlessly upbeat, or else Obama wouldn’t have gone public with his promise that the site – the public’s entry point to Obamacare – would be a cinch to use, a la Amazon.com.

    But why were the reports to Obama so sunny? Didn’t Sebelius heed the September warning, from the site’s contractors, that the site was nowhere near ready for Oct. 1, that the time frame for test and launch was way too short? (In a separate congressional hearing this week, the contractors said they had relayed this warning to government officials.)  Or did that warning not reach her ears at all? She insisted Wednesday that “no senior official ever reporting to me ever advised me that we should delay” and that “no one indicated that this (launch) could possibly go this wrong.”

    Meanwhile, she acknowledged that comprehensive testing of the finished site began way too late, just two weeks before launch, making it impossible to fix things in time. And, separately, top Sebelius subordinate Marilyn Tavenner said that top contractor CGI Federal “had some issues with timely delivery.” But Sebelius didn’t say whether any of that downbeat info was included in the “regular reports” to Obama. Nor did she indicate whether Obama asked probing questions about the status of the site, or simply punted all the details.

    It’s like what Casey Stengel asked about his 1962 New York Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

    So it’s no surprise that Obama took a major hit in the latest bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. His job approval rating is now 42 percent. (The Republicans are faring far worse, having fallen to a record low 22 percent, but it’s symptomatic of Obama’s woes that he can’t seem to capitalize on the GOP’s toxic brand.) Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who co-conducted the aforementioned survey, said this week that Americans – annoyed by the website episode and the new revelations of NSA spying – are askng two fundamental questions about this administration: “Who is in control? Who is running things?”

    I’d take that interpretation one step further. Most Americans (tea-party ideologues aside) want their government to work properly. Democrats are the party of government, and we have a Democratic president whose signature domestic law is grounded in the proposition that government can be a positive force to make people’s lives better. So when it is revealed that a Democratic administration has screwed up what it’s supposed to be good at – especially with a law that, given its tenuous popularity, has little margin for error – then naturally, and appropriately, the president is going to pay a political price.

    Ultimately, what Obama knew or didn’t know is immaterial. As the sign on Harry Truman’s desk said, “The Buck Stops Here.”

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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