When the Obamacare website debuted on Oct. 1, Barack Obama walked into the Rose Garden and compared it to Amazon.com, Kayak.com and the iPhone. Unlike those operated by the other three, the Affordable Care Act portals to buy insurance were not working that day — but the President explained that the “glitches” had to do with traffic that “exceeds anything that we had expected.” Five days later, when asked about the continued problems, he told the Associated Press, “It is true that what’s happened is the website got overwhelmed by the volume.”
Now, 21 days after the launch, the story has changed. The “glitches” have been upgraded to “technical problems,” according to a White House official, and those problems are “unacceptable,” a fact Obama plans to make clear in another Rose Garden appearance midday Monday. What’s more, the problems are no longer simply a function of volume. “Our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering,” reads an unsigned blog post that appeared Sunday on the Health and Human Services (HHS) website. “Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team.”
Political reality, unlike actual reality, is malleable stuff. A good politician can mold the former to fit his interests, even coast to electoral victory with the help of hobgoblins, money for ads and consultant pixie dust. The problems arise when political realities are inextricably linked to actual realities. While Obama could probably continue to tell Americans that the Obamacare rollout is little more than an iPhone app in need of an update, his health care law actually needs uninsured people to choose to sign up or it will fail. And so the spin can no longer stand.
According to the official statistics, 19 million unique visitors have gone to HealthCare.gov since the site debuted on Oct. 1. At first glance, that sounds pretty good, considering the goal is to get 7 million uninsured people to sign up by next spring. But because the statistic no doubt includes countless curious Americans just clicking through, it’s not a meaningful measure. Of the uninsured people in the U.S., Gallup found this month that 71% were either “not too familiar” or “not at all familiar” with the health-insurance exchanges that can be accessed through the government website. Nearly half, or 47%, said “not at all familiar.” The numbers had not moved since weeks before the Oct. 1 rollout.
The other official statistic that has been released focuses on the number of applications that have been at least started since the exchanges opened: 476,000. But it too is of dubious value. No one in government has said how many of those applications have led to enrollments. At the same time, the Obama Administration has been distancing itself from a memo obtained by the Associated Press that shows the Administration expected 494,620 people to actually enroll in the first month. “Projections are constantly changing based on experience,” backpedaled an HHS spokeswoman.
Whether a “glitch” or a dismissible offense, as former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs put it, the rocky website rollout will not in itself doom Obamacare, which has actually risen slightly in popularity over the past few weeks as Americans have come to realize it is less damaging to the economy than those who oppose it with so much venom they shut down the government in protest. The President and his aides point to the example of Massachusetts, the only other state that has attempted a program similar to Obamacare. Many of the sign-ups there happened just before the penalties kicked in. For Obamacare, that won’t happen until next spring.
But the problem Obama now faces is one familiar to many Presidents before him: a need to demonstrate basic competency. One of the oldest polling questions in American politics is, “How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington?” Right now, according to Pew, just 19% of Americans say “just about always” or “most of the time,” which is not far from the historic low. As a President who continues to pin his policy prescription around a bigger government hand in economic development, Obama does not have the option of simply allowing his website to muddle along. His legacy will not hold up if his signature accomplishment fails to attract the uninsured. This is why he needs to stop apologizing for the failure, make some changes and show that he can get the job done. Look for him to start today, just before noon.