White House to skip big PR push for ObamaCare enrollment in December -- for fear that traffic will overwhelm the website

A month ago, the goal was to have Healthcare.gov working in time for the anticipated post-Thanksgiving crush of enrollments before the December 15th deadline. A month later, here’s how Sebelius defines “working”:

[A]dministration officials said Tuesday that they had decided not to inaugurate a big health care marketing campaign planned for December out of concern that it might drive too many people to the still-fragile HealthCare.gov.

With a self-imposed deadline for repairs to the website approaching on Saturday, the administration is trying to strike a delicate balance. It is encouraging people to go or return to the website but does not want to create too much demand. It boasts that the website is vastly improved, but does not want to raise expectations that it will work for everyone.

“We are definitely on track to have a significantly different user experience by the end of this month,” Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said Tuesday. “That was our commitment.”

In an alternate universe where the website worked fine on day one, Obama’s spent the past eight weeks chatting with any media outlet that’ll have him to encourage people — especially young people — to sign up. In that universe, mid-November to mid-December is when the White House PR machine goes into overdrive to convince holdouts to beat the deadline and make sure they’re covered on January 1st. The more “young healthies” enroll, the more sustainable the program is and the rosier the expectations are that insurers won’t have to raise premiums in 2015 to cover any losses. And of course, the closer the White House gets to its enrollment target, the more I-told-you-so’s there are at the GOP’s expense.

In this universe, not only hasn’t Obama done any sustained media tours to promote enrollment while the website is in limbo, he’s actually abandoning the big home-stretch overdrive push because, even now, it just can’t handle the load. Imagine how “fragile” it must be, to borrow the Times’s word, for the White House to decide that the prudent thing to do when they’re desperate for more sign-ups is not to encourage people too much lest Healthcare.gov crash again and the resulting bad press scares people off for good. Ezra Klein claimed yesterday that, even though O-Care will now almost certainly miss its target of seven million enrollments next year, that’s no biggie; it’s the mix of enrollments, young/healthy versus poor/sick, that will determine if the program can go forward. And that’s true, sort of: If you’re building a boat, it’s more important to build one that can float than to build one that’s really big. In this case, though, those two features aren’t independent. If the White House falls way short of its target number, it’ll likely be because too few “young healthies” are enrolling, not too few poor and sick. They may very well hit their target for the latter group but badly miss the former. That boat won’t float. And now here’s the White House admitting, due to its technological self-sabotage, that it can’t take aggressive action to minimize the risk of missing its young/healthy target next month. If I were a Democrat whose seat is up next year, the “significantly different user experience” Sebelius is promising next week wouldn’t suffice.

Meanwhile, how’s all of this playing with the public? CNN has a poll out this morning that’s only mostly, not entirely, bad news for ObamaCare. Fifty-eight percent oppose the law, nearly 40 percent have already decided that it’s a failure, and 45 percent think its problems are too profound to be fixed. But there’s an important footnote on the support/oppose question. Here’s what you get when you ask people whether they favor the law, oppose it because it’s too liberal, or oppose it because it’s not liberal enough (the fourth row represents “don’t know” and the fifth is the margin of error for the subsample):


In every category except whites, a majority either supports the law as-is or wishes it were more liberal. (Among O’s 18-34 fan base, that majority is 60 percent.) I wish CNN had added some historical data so that we could see the trend on that. It stands to reason that the more headaches O-Care creates for Obama, the more we’ll see Democrats peeling out of the “favor” column and landing in the “not liberal enough” one. Has that phenomenon already begun? Only the historical numbers can tell us. On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into the “not liberal enough” metric. Here’s more data from the same Q&A as above:


Thirteen percent of Republicans and 15 percent of self-identified conservatives wish ObamaCare was more liberal than it is? That seems … unlikely. But maybe not impossible: Medicare consistently polls well even among GOP voters, which is why lefties increasingly eschew terms like “single-payer” (or, lord knows, “socialized medicine”) in describing their health-care ambitions and choose ones like “Medicare for all” instead. Maybe some segment of Republicans/conservatives thinks Medicare for everyone would be nifty. Or maybe they have something totally different in mind about what it would mean to make O-Care “more liberal.” But what?

Needless to say, as any good liberal will be quick to remind you, all of the numbers above are dynamic. If the website starts working, some of the people who are convinced that the law’s a failure and its problems can’t be solved will quickly become unconvinced. But of course, that works both ways: The more stories the public hears about the site not working, about coverage being dropped, about provider networks shrinking, and about premiums skyrocketing — and they’ll hear plenty more next year once small-business coverage is in the mix — the more sour those numbers could become. Which way are you betting? Exit quotation: “So the unavoidable truth is that Obamacare will hurt millions of Americans; the only question is how many.”

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