Mission Affordabled: Why Obama’s Website Problems Aren’t “His Iraq”

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

Yes, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular is gaining ground: Healthcare.gov is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it.

Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t.

To start with, the fact that people died in Iraq, as opposed to the inconvenience involved in a malfunctioning website, doesn’t make it a bad analogy. The analogy has to do with presidential decisions; it’s about process, not outcomes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

No, what makes it a bad analogy is that Iraq War was misconceived from the start, and the actual events of the war, to a large extent, made obvious what some saw from the beginning.

With the exchanges, on the other hand, no one believes that they are inherently unworkable. Nor has the opening of the exchanges revealed anything fraudulent about the basic case Barack Obama made for passing the law in the first place.

No, the rollout of the health-care exchanges is no Iraq.

But Obama’s latest annoyance could become an Iraq (again, as a similar breakdown of governance, even though the consequences would be different). Leave aside the question of how Iraq was sold to the public and focus just on the policy. The big mistakes in that misadventure involved policy implementation at least as much as they were about policy formation. As bad an idea as it may have been from the start, Iraq only became Iraq because the war was carried out so badly.

The Affordable Care Act could become an equally fraught parable for presidents if its problems continue into next year. Imagine if Healthcare.gov never gets fixed during open enrollment this year … and is still basically unusable next fall when the second open season is scheduled. Imagine if the back-end problems mean that people don’t get the insurance they thought they had paid for. The system does have some built-in ways of dealing with unexpected application mix-ups, but it’s certainly possible Health and Human Services could be overwhelmed by various worst-case scenarios.

If worse comes to worse, the ACA still wouldn’t exactly be an Iraq-style mistake. After all, one can’t really put aside the important context that Iraq was sold on “facts” that weren’t true. Nor can one ignore the massive inherent problems with Iraq, even if it was run perfectly. But the two would share something important: they would both be policies that were so badly implemented that they fell far short of what reasonably could have been expected.

And yet, I’m confident that Obamacare won’t become Iraq.

Why?

Because the Obama administration isn’t going to be shopping for “Mission Accomplished” signs; it’s going to try to fix the problem. And while I suspect that is in part because Barack Obama is just better at presidenting than George W. Bush was—and has surrounded himself with a team willing to second guess him when he heads down the wrong road—the big reason that I expect things to get better is because Democrats are going to demand it.

Remember, the Bush administration strongly denied anything was going wrong in Iraq—not just for weeks, but years. The “Mission Accomplished” episode is remembered because it was an apt symbol for how the White House acted. Whatever line the White House set, conservatives almost universally followed. You may recall, for example, an extended period in which the emerging insurgency in Iraq was—quite preposterously—compared to largely mythical Nazi “bitter enders.” Right up until the run-up to the 2006 elections (that is, three years into the fiasco), there was virtually no public pressure from Republicans on the White House.

Nor was this dynamic restricted to Iraq. Republicans spent much of 2008 denying the recession that had already begun; that’s how John McCain got into trouble during the presidential campaign by claiming that economic fundamentals were sound.

Not only does the current president seem to have much less of an instinct for minimizing current troubles, but it doesn’t really matter: Democrats give him no choice. There are some exceptions (yes, Obamabots who think the president can do no wrong are a real phenomenon), but for the most part Democrats in Congress and liberals in the press have pushed hard at the administration to fix the problem, rather than cheerleading and minimizing damage

That’s exactly the kind of situation which is highly risky to a president—since Republicans are sure to bash whatever he does, he can’t afford to have Democrats upset with him too. The White House is going to press hard to get this fixed.

To step back a bit from this particular situation, perhaps the best perspective on this is the idea that we’ve moved from the personal presidencies of Nixon and Carter to a partisan presidency, and that means that presidents above all will respond to party cues. In this particular case, Democrats deeply care about getting health care reform working well, for both political and (even more so) substantive reasons. A whole lot of Democrats, to be blunt, care a lot more that the policy work well than that it appear to work well. And because of that, and because contemporary presidents are extremely responsive to their party, we can expect real change to be the administration’s priority. All of which means that however bad things look now, health-care reform isn’t going to turn into this president’s Iraq.

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