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.

Comments

Mr. Bernstein:

We won the Iraq War after the "Surge" counter insurgency operation in 2007 and came home. Conversely, Obamacare is structurally and fatally flawed on multiple levels. The only similar result of the two events is that Democrats want to run away.

Mr. DePalma,

That is an excellent post. I wish I had written it.

Five years after the invasion the most powerful military in the world finally suppressed a third world third world country with 5000 dead service men and women and tens of thousands wounded and you call that a victory? I'll be waiting for yours and other trolls' replies after the ACA has fully insured millions of Americans next year.

"while I suspect that is in part because Barack Obama is just better at presidenting than George W. Bush was"

You lost me right there. The incessant liberal mantra that 'Obama is finally going to do better this time" grew old some time ago. It isn't going to happen. He is a write-off. We will get continued incompetence in domestic and foreign policy, a worsening economy, and diminished worldwide status, until the merciful end, if we even get that far.

Another big difference is that not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for the Obamacare disaster, whereas about half of the Democrats (including Biden and Hillary) voted for the Iraq War. Another big difference is that 99 percent of the American population were not personally impacted by the Iraq War, whereas under Obamacare tens of millions of people will lose their current insurance and be forced to purchase expense government approved packages larded with benefits they do not need or want. It was easiest thing in the world for everyday liberals to be against the Iraq War (angry words cost nothing). But what about when the liberal kiddies figure out they're going to be forced to pay hundreds of dollars a month?

Mr Bernstein, You say in your piece: "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."

Wouldn't you agree that the President's claim (many times) that "If you like your current policy you can keep it. If you like your doctor, you can keep it. Nobody is going to take that away from you. NO MATTER WHAT." was indeed a fraudulent pitch to gain popular support for the 0bamacare?

I don't know what you call lies, but one word for it it fraudulent.

Lots of us know for sure that the exchanges are unworkable. When the website is eventually fixed, all the bad risks will swarm in to sign up. The younger, healthier, middle class suckers who are supposed to finance the scheme.... not so much.

And while the Bush Administration believed its intelligence reports, there is no way O could possibly have believed the swarm of lies he used to promote the scheme. And if you like the insurance you have now, CAN you keep it???

I would have to agree with this line of thinking if I were able to accept the premise that the degree of desire to fix the website had an influence upon the speed at which it will be fixed. Unfortunately, this is where Obamacare is like Iraq: no matter how badly Bush wanted pacification, the dual insurgencies wouldn't permit it, and there was nothing he could do about it. Hence a 10-year war. Similarly, the systems integration problem that is at the heart of the ACA website will not yield to additional resource commitment. The problem is that the scores of systems that must be integrated are of different vintages, written on different languages, and reside on different hardware platforms. They are old and kludgey and to a great extent undocumented with undocumented subsequent patches. Even small systems integration projects can take decades. One of this scale, which must permit communication with 100% accuracy in real time at high volume verges on the impossible. This would have been flagged at least two years ago if a first-class general contractor such as IBM or Accenture had been assigned this project. As it happened, thee was no general contractor aside from the 9 to 5 health policy bureaucrats at HHS. At least in Iraq, there was always the "just leave" strategy; for ACA there is no exit strategy since repeal would be as disastrous as failure.

Other way around. Iraq war well conceived and well won. The mistake war carrying what happened in Iraq after.

ACA was designed to fail. Perhaps due to its many inconveniences we might actually decide to improve things and gain greater supply greater access greater competition and greater patient choice. Perhaps not - perhaps repeal, a step back; maybe even single-payer, a catastrophe.

ACA can't work as designed. Taxes to pay for subsidies can not be voluntary nor the direct cause of pricing driving the profitable (healthier) customers away.

The website can't work either - no way it makes sense to block access to pricing before subsidy determination. Then requirements are set to inconvenience 90% of the people, in order to protect the President and his allies, less than 500 people. The ultimate in reverse Progressivism, to me.

The key difference is that the Iraq War initially had bipartisan support but Obamacare never has.

One key difference is that the Iraq War was started with good intentions but was executed poorly. Obamacare, on the other hand, has been executed to plan but the public is now realizing what the real plan includes.

"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."

Actually it has revealed fraud. Which reminds me, for some reason food and drug industries aren't allowed to say just anything they want to promote their products. I expect it to be different now:

Me: I want to market this caffeinated drink that gives an energy boost and cures cancer. That's what I'll put in the ads.

FDA (imitating Bernstein): OK, go ahead. The basic case is true. It does give an energy boost.

BTW, some of us have been making the Iraq/ObamaCare comparison for a few years now. If Bernstein is going to write an article debunking the comparison, he might want to take the trouble to learn what's actually in it.

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