President Obama’s cheerleaders like to compare him to Abraham Lincoln. In most respects, this is a travesty that both inflates the meager accomplishments of our 44th president and demeans the heroic achievements of our 16th. But in seeking the right moment to dump Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after her shocking failures during the ObamaCare rollout, the president did take a page out of Lincoln’s handbook.
When Lincoln was thinking about the right moment to unveil the Emancipation Proclamation he told his Cabinet that it had to wait until after the Union won a victory over heretofore-ascendant rebel armies. Though the victory he seized upon for the announcement—the battle of Antietam—was really a bloody draw from which the Confederate army was allowed to escape, it was enough to provide cover for a great and historic act that was intensely controversial at the time. Similarly, President Obama knew that the necessary transition at HHS would have to wait until after the storm of criticism that had come down on Sebelius during the ObamaCare rollout had subsided. But after the administration was able to pump up the number of those enrolled in the program to the 7 million figure by the April 1 deadline, the president declared a victory in the battle over the unpopular program that was far shakier than even the Union’s claims after Antietam.
In announcing Sebelius’s departure and the appointment of Sylvia Matthews Burwell to succeed her at a White House pep rally today, the president continued the pretense that all is well is with ObamaCare and that Sebelius’s tenure at HHS was one of success achieved over immense odds because of the enrollment of over 7 million people in the program. But rarely has any single public official done more to undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of government to function than Kathleen Sebelius. Her incapacity to manage a huge federal bureaucracy was never exactly a secret prior to the October 1, 2013 rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act, but from that date on, Sebelius’s out-of-touch leadership style gave new meaning to the term clueless. Her departure for the more competent Burwell is a relief even for those who oppose the president’s signature health-care legislation. But what she leaves behind will always stand as a warning to both presidents and their appointees about the damage they can do.
In fairness to Sebelius, it must be noted that she was not the architect of ObamaCare. The president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi deserve principle credit for the monstrosity that emerged from Congress in 2010. But her hands-off management led to disaster as she failed to alert the president to the fact that her department was simply nowhere near ready to launch the law in October. The result was the infamous Healthcare.gov website that made a laughingstock of Sebelius but also called into question the basic competence of the administration.
Of course, the real problem with ObamaCare was never the “glitchy” website but the entire concept of a government takeover of health care that would hurt as many, if not more, people than it helped. Yet Sebelius’s foolish confidence and stonewalling of Congress about the disaster will forever stick in the public consciousness as a symbolic of what can go wrong when a career politician is asked to do the job only a technocrat can deal with.
But there’s more to Sebelius’s legacy than incompetence. By refusing to tell the truth about how many of those being counted as enrollees (including the 20 percent of those who signed up on the website but never paid for their coverage) and by delaying much of the more unpopular aspects of the rollout until after this year’s midterm elections, Sebelius not only deepened the cynicism about the law but further undermined the credibility of the government. President Obama claimed today that the “final score speaks for itself” in terms of what Sebelius accomplished, but the real pain inflicted by this program and the massive dislocation in the health-care system as well as job losses and skyrocketing insurance costs that will be felt in the years to come will always be associated with Sebelius.
It should also be noted that by imposing an HHS mandate to force all employers, even those with religious objections, to pay for free contraception and abortion drugs (a provision that is not in the text of ObamaCare but was instead promulgated by her department), Sebelius struck a formidable blow against religious liberty that can only be repaired by the U.S. Supreme Court.
What occurred this year was no victory for health care, President Obama, or Kathleen Sebelius. But her legacy of incompetence and deception will live on long after her departure or even that of her boss.