Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has finally offered to testify before Congress next week. If she does, the grilling by the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the ObamaCare rollout will not be pretty. It’s far from clear that Sebelius will be able to supply satisfactory answers to questions about why this major expansion of government power was unveiled with an inadequate website and a system designed to crash. As Politico notes, we don’t even know if Sebelius, let alone President Obama, knows what’s wrong with it, how or when it can be fixed, how much it will cost, or why there was no backup plan prepared. As I noted last week, there are good political reasons for thinking the president is not inclined to fire Sebelius. But whether he likes it or not, she looks to be the only figure in the administration who can be called to account for the failure. And as more information starts to dribble out to answer these questions, a dynamic in which she is set up to be the sacrifice to the Washington volcano may be inevitable.
The president’s combative stance in his White House speech yesterday on the subject shows that although he professes to be angry about the situation, he’s still more inclined to vent his spleen at opponents of his signature health-care plan than at those screwing up its implementation. His position remains that the problems are mere “glitches” rather than systemic or connected to the inherent challenge of placing a portion of American health care in the hands of federal bureaucrats. This is a president who has always been reluctant to fire subordinates, no matter how incompetent they may be. Nor has he ever shown much interest in holding himself accountable for their mistakes. Thus the decision to focus on selling the wonders of ObamaCare rather than to investigate its flaws is very much in character. But once the scene shifts from the Rose Garden to a congressional hearing room, the president may find that he will rapidly lose control of this story. That will mean the White House will go back into the same scandal damage control mode that was employed with varying success when applied to the administration’s Benghazi, IRS, and spying scandals earlier this year. Unless his tech surge achieves a miraculous recovery of the faltering system, that may mean the end of Sebelius or a delay in the bill’s individual mandate, or both.
The president insists that ObamaCare is working and it is just the “long checkout line” via the website that is problematic. But once Sebelius is put on the hot seat, that narrative may no longer be viable. Incompetence isn’t illegal, but it is a damning indictment of an administration whose main purpose is to expand the reach of the federal government. As with the raft of scandals that plagued the president earlier in the year (and from which the mainstream media eager to please the White House has happily moved on), if the best defense that can be put forward for misbehavior or failure is incompetence, that undermines the basic rationale of the Democrats’ efforts to entrust a big chunk of the national economy to government.
While the president was short on answers to the questions the country is asking about the problem, Sebelius won’t be able to get away with the same arrogant stance once she’s hauled in front of the various congressional committees that will want a share of the publicity. Democrats are talking as if all it will take is a few geeks pressing some buttons and the problems will be fixed. But it’s likely that the solution will be a lot more complicated and lot more time-consuming than they hope. As the weeks drag on without tangible improvements, the president may come to the conclusion that the only way to buy some more time for the program that is so close to his heart is to throw Sebelius under the bus. Though Republicans would be certain to turn the process of confirming a replacement into a nightmare, it might turn out to be a better option than stonewalling the issue. This president may believe the only acceptable scapegoats are Republicans, but Sebelius’s resignation may be on his desk long before he waves the white flag on implementing the individual mandate.
But Sebelius’s danger doesn’t scare the president nearly as much as the prospect that computer technology—his ace in the hole in two presidential campaigns—will be the undoing of his most cherished accomplishment. Make no mistake, if the tech surge doesn’t provide almost immediate relief as the January deadline looms closer, the president knows he will also have no choice but to push back the enforcement of the individual mandate. How ironic would it be if a bad computer system were to force the president to do what he vowed never to concede to Republicans? We’re still a long way from that point. But if it does happen, don’t bet on Sebelius still being around in office to see it.