“Nobody’s madder than me,” Barack Obama told the nation yesterday, “about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should.” But is he? In the same speech, he extolled the system that hardly anyone can access, while failing to even suggest that the President should hold people accountable for the rank incompetence that produced the debacle. Three weeks into the fiasco, the only accountability being exercised is coming from Congress, where HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has finally agreed to testify after first claiming she had no time to talk with Congress about the massive failure produced by her agency after a 42-month head start.
My column at The Week advises Obama to start demonstrating actual anger by canning the people responsible for this $400 million disaster, starting with Sebelius:
Obama insisted, “Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should.” Getting angry would be a good start. However, the only anger Obama flashed at all in his speech was aimed at critics pointing out the failures, and not the people who were responsible for the system’s creation. This website cost the American people more than $400 million, according to the Times, and yet not once in Obama’s speech did he say he would impose accountability for the failure. In fact, the word “accountable” never appears in his speech, despite the nine-figure price tag and the 42 months HHS had to get this right.
The president did promise a “tech surge” to find and eliminate the problems in the website, including the transmission of bad data to insurers. He reassured Americans that “America’s top private-sector tech companies” had offered their help to resolve the problem, noting that they “have seen things like this happen before.” That’s debatable, especially on the scale and scope of this failure, but it’s at least true that private-sector firms occasionally have to deal with failing projects. However, they usually solve the problem by imposing substantial penalties for those responsible for the failure, such as demotions and terminations, and replace them with more competent personnel to rescue the projects. They also usually don’t start off by blaming the critics for the problem and then trying to get consumers to believe that everything is hunky-dory.
The scope of this failure demands changes at HHS — at least if Obama wants Americans to have trust in this system. Kathleen Sebelius’ top priority since March 2010 was preparing for the rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges, and yet they have all but collapsed, to the point that two successive weekends of patches can’t fix the issues. (The last patch was to add a button explaining how to use the call center rather than the website, but the call center can’t properly handle the requests, either.) HHS’s subsidiary agency Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and its administrator Marilyn Tavenner were responsible for developing and launching Healthcare.gov, but Obama didn’t mention either agency or its top executives in his speech. If Obama is “madder” than anyone, who is he mad at?
Here’s a better question. Why should Americans believe that the broken system will be fixed within weeks by the same people who had control of this project for the last three-plus years and had $400 million at their disposal? Asking people to trust in the failed management team that delivered the current fiasco would be like asking them to believe that they can keep their plan if they like their plan. It’s time to clean house, or better yet, admit defeat and pursue other means of reforming the health-insurance industry — like, say, turning it back over to the same private sector that Obama had to call this week for a rescue of his Big Government project failure.
I’m hardly alone in wondering why heads aren’t already rolling in the executive branch. Bloomberg’s editors also scoff at Obama’s expression of impotent and largely undetectable anger, and especially at Obama’s pep rally yesterday:
In remarks this morning in the White House Rose Garden, President Barack Obama said HealthCare.gov, the website that is supposed to be the conduit through which people buy insurance under the new health-care law, “hasn’t worked as smoothly as it was supposed to.” That’s a little like saying a plane that crashed into a mountain, caught fire and exploded didn’t land as smoothly as it was supposed to.
Three weeks into the most flagrant debacle of his presidency, Obama didn’t say what went wrong, why or who was to blame. He offered no details about what the administration is doing to fix it (“We’ve got people working overtime”), or how long it will take. And he expressed no contrition, saying only that “Nobody’s madder than me.” …
Third, the president should demonstrate that failure has consequences. Obama is fond of comparing the rollout of HealthCare.gov to that of an Apple Inc. (AAPL) product. Surely, if less than 1 percent of the people who tried to use the company’s latest operating system could do so, the executives responsible would not keep their jobs.
John Dickerson also takes on the Apple talking point, noting that consumers had other options when their mapping program turned out to be buggy on release. He also points out in Slate that the administration has either been dishonest, incompetent, or both:
The president’s speech was just the latest attempt to put the problems with Healthcare.gov into perspective—a job that is not going well. Before the site was launched, the president said it would make signing up for health care as easy as making a plane reservation. When, after a few rocky days that turned out to be too rosy, the administration dropped the airline analogy. Now the experience more closely approximates the saga of having your flight delayed. First, the airline tells you it will be a half hour, then it stretches it to an hour, then two, then you’re offered a voucher for a drink. After four hours, it dawns on you that the plane is never taking off. They continue to assure you it will—just before they cancel your flight.
The stories keep shifting. Administration officials said the site had been tested as thoroughly as the IRS computer systems that handle electronic tax returns. Now Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius admits the system wasn’t tested enough. In the first several days, administration officials spoke of “glitches,” and Secretary Sebelius asked that people give the government the same amount of slack Apple gets when it launches a new product. But the administration dropped that analogy because, unlike Apple’s quick admission that Apple Maps was a mess, the government can’t just let users install Google Maps (and there have been no quick firings for the mess, as there were at Apple). The president and his team then said the website snafus were the result of huge traffic, but that explanation doesn’t explain the considerable technical problems now being reported. Reports of the extraordinary number of people who have accessed the site are themselves full of fuzzy claims that seek to oversell the success.
There’s a dangerous spiral that can take hold in these situations, as spin intended to distract from the current mess becomes its own problem. That is especially true when the facts demonstrate that the story the administration was selling is too optimistic: Either the White House knew how bad things were and wasn’t playing it straight or it didn’t know how bad things were and is just inept.
Obama can’t ask us to trust that the same people who spent 42 months and $400 million delivering this debacle have the requisite skills to repair it within weeks while in operation. At least, not with a straight face.
Update: Matt Lewis suggests that Obama hire Jim Leyland. He’s got a better record.