Fight Back

It’s Time for Obama to Go on Offense on Health Care

His apology for the disastrous Obamacare rollout was nice, but the public needs daily updates and vivid examples to break through the media-manufactured panic.

I try to limit myself to no more than four sports analogies a year, just to keep the clubby-male-pundit thing to a minimum. But this is unavoidably one of those times. Right now in the Obamacare Bowl, it’s like one of those points early in a football game where the other team has scored three quick touchdowns via some unusual circumstances, the old blocked punt and such. So boom, it’s 21-0. But it’s still the first quarter—say, 3:32 left in the first quarter. That’s where we are.

Politicians might panic. But winning football teams just buckle down, slowly take control, and—above all else—fight. And that’s what the White House needs to do starting right now; not to save its own political neck, but for the millions of people the Affordable Care Act will help and the other millions who have spent years in their various ways organizing for health-care reform.

The current situation is a crisis. But it isn’t a catastrophe. A catastrophe is more or less hopeless. Despite right-wing chortling, this isn’t even close to that yet. The website can be fixed. The cancellations are affecting only a few million people. A few million people is a lot of people, but there are 150 million other Americans with private-sector insurance. Besides which, there’s every reason to think that a lot of these few million are going to better off with new ACA-style plans, as Jonathan Cohn notes in this column. It’s entirely possible, for example, that people paying more now in premiums (which is the only measure these recent news stories have been taking into account) will pay less in the future if they or their families need care beyond the basics. At that point—around halftime in the Obamacare Bowl—they’ll look up and realize that this wasn’t so terrible after all, although the media won’t be around to cover it.

So it’s a crisis. A crisis can be turned around. But if you’re going to turn a crisis around, you have to play offense. And this is the bad pattern this administration has fallen into time and time again when things aren’t going its way. They are so slow to respond and get the counter-story out, it’s kind of astonishing.

Did they really not think that, even if the website had worked perfectly, there would be some horror stories about it? And did they really not know that people who buy their plans from non-group options were going to get some cancellation notices? It’s utterly impossible to me that either of those could be the case. They just had to know. The experts—your Jonathan Grubers and Jacob Hackers and Harold Pollacks, all of whom were consulted in different ways at different times—knew all this going back to 2005 or 2006. So Obama officials had to know, and assuming they knew, why weren’t they ready with answers and with numerous counterexamples where the cancelled policy-holder ended up better off? It’s incredible. But whatever the case, I would surely hope they’re out there gathering those counterexamples now so they can start getting those stories out. That’s playing offense.

Apologizing excessively is playing defense. Now I think Obama was right to do that mea culpa bit last week. He had little choice. But that’s enough in the apology department. Start telling the positive stories. It’s enough for another reason. “That’s on me,” once, is at best only kind of menschy. But it doesn’t change anything. To go all-in on my football analogy, if a running back fumbles the ball away and it loses the game and in the locker room afterward he says “that’s on me,” well, that’s … nice. Getting the ball back after the fumble and running 83 yards for the game-winning touchdown is a little better. Actions, not words.

Actions are needed now. Obama should be up there—not Kathleen Sebelius, and not the website’s Mr. Fix It Jeffrey Zients; Obama—on a daily or near-daily basis explaining to people, “Here’s what we did today to make this better.” He needs to be (non-sports analogy ahead!) like a mayor handling a snowstorm or a garbage strike. That’s what this is. Citizens need to know stuff. They need to feel someone is in charge. One press conference is defense. Daily updates on what’s getting better make for offense.

Of course he’s not going to. If he were that kind of hands-on manager, this mess might not have happened in the first place. Probably wouldn’t have. But here we are. It is definitely not yet a catastrophe. Right-wingers are chortling way too soon. Does it sound so impossible that by mid-January, say, the website is working and people getting cancellation notices understand that a cancellation is not in fact the end of the world, it just means that Plan A is no longer available but Plans B and C and D are available, so all they have to do is go online and look and they’ll find one that is either better or a mixed bag but acceptable? No, it doesn’t sound impossible to me at all.

There’s a lot of time left on the clock. But those things will happen only if the president and the White House make them happen. Democrats are great at running for the hills when the Sunday hosts and Politico and the other arbiters of conventional wisdom create an atmosphere of Democratic panic. They need to be reminded that they’re there to represent millions of people who voted for them and supported this bill and need its benefits. Not all of them do—Nancy Pelosi never seems to need to be reminded of that. But it feels, not for the first time, like Obama does need to be reminded.