Obama’s embarrassing website, in perspective

     A computer screen shows a website run by the federal government where people can enroll for health care exchanges under President Barack Obama's health care law.  Due to technology problems, many were unable to sign up on the website. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

    A computer screen shows a website run by the federal government where people can enroll for health care exchanges under President Barack Obama's health care law. Due to technology problems, many were unable to sign up on the website. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

    It was eerie yesterday, watching President Obama play pitchman-in-chief for Obamacare. Yes, he said, the government website launch has been a mess, but “I want people to be able to get this great product…1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that, 1-800-318-2596…The call centers are already up and running!” He sounded like a cross between Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, and the Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live character who hawked the bass-o-matic blender.

    But what Obama didn’t say was arguably more important. He didn’t say who was responsible for the website woes (the contractors? or did the administration fail to oversee the contractors?), he didn’t identify the computer experts who are reportedly riding to the rescue (he said only that they’re “the best and the brightest”), he didn’t indicate how long the fixes might take, and he didn’t offer any stats on how Americans have managed to enroll. All this, just weeks after declaring that HealthCare.gov would be a cinch to navigate, in the spirit of Amazon.com.

    Talk about bad political timing. Republicans, who view Obamacare the way Captain Ahab viewed Moby Dick, humiliated themselves during their government shutdown – yet now, here is Obama giving them a fresh excuse to chew the carpet. It’s a cardinal rule in politics that when your enemies are stuck in a ditch, you don’t inadvertently toss them a rope.

    And despite the usual Republican complaints about how the so-called “liberal press” covers for Obama, the fact is that the “liberal press” has provided them with ample ammo about the website. The New York Times has covered the rollout woes extensively, and today’s Washington Post offers this tidbit: On the eve of the website’s public launch, “it crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously. Despite the failed test, federal health officials plowed ahead.”

    An exultant Fox News, citing the website’s problems, slapped this headline on one of its stories yesterday: “Even Media Liberals Are Appalled.” (Italics are mine.) But why should Fox News be surprised? The fact is, the mainstream press reports reality; it’s going to report the inept launch of the website regardless of whether Obama takes a political hit. Fox News, and most of the conservative press, would do well to become just as reality-based.

    But I digress. And now it’s time to put the website episode in perspective.

    The egregious online rollout (which will likely get fixed anyway, just as George W. Bush’s egregious Medicare D rollout was fixed over a span of months) doesn’t mean that Republicans have suddenly rebounded from their shutdown debacle, and rallied the public against Obamacare. There isn’t a shred of such evidence in the latest polls.  For instance, according the new CNN/ORC survey, the verdict on the GOP is brutal: Last December, 51 percent of Americans said that a Republican House was “good for the country,” while 43 percent said it was “bad for the country.” Post-shutdown, those numbers have been reversed. Only 38 percent say a Republican House is good; 54 percent say it’s bad. And, with respect to Obamacare, 53 percent of Americans either favor it or say it’s not liberal enough.

    And for all the attention being lavished right now on the federal website, the various state health exchanges – 14 states are running their own marketplaces – have launched with far fewer headaches (and, in many cases, competitively affordable premiums.) Indeed, HealthCare.gov would be under a lot less pressure, and facing a lot less consumer demand, if most of the Republican-led states had agreed to set up marketplaces rather than toss the ball to the feds.

    But, in terms of perspective, here’s the bottom line: Obama still has the political advantage because he has the moral high ground. He’s pitching reforms that have already given Americans – insured Americans – more security. Thanks to his law, young adults can stay on the family tab until age 26, kids can get coverage despite pre-existing health woes, and people can’t get thrown off the insurance rolls anymore because of a lifetime coverage cap. The downside is, he has technical headaches that require urgent attention. But that still trumps the Republicans, whose core mission these past four years – a negative mission – is to stop Americans from getting health coverage security.

    On the other hand, the political balance may well shift over time if Obama can’t get that site fixed. And it’s unfortunate that he characterized the fixers as “the best and the brightest.” That phrase was coined 40 years ago to describe the geniuses who got us stuck in Vietnam.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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