Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Plea for Irrelevance

President Obama’s political instincts are generally compared unfavorably to those of the previous Democratic president, the glad-handing triangulator Bill Clinton. But there is one mistake of Clinton’s that Obama is almost sure not to replicate. The lowest moment of Clinton’s first term was his plea that “the president is still relevant here,” an indication that at the moment he was a bystander to political events and wanted desperately to change that perception in the media.

The reason Obama is unlikely to make that mistake, however, is that he refuses to countenance the idea that he is relevant at all. Whether it’s the IRS scandal, Benghazi, the targeting of journalists, or other controversies, the president has portrayed himself as always the last one to know. And now, as Politico points out, he is reacting to the abysmal rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges the same way:

His “nobody’s madder than me” Monday echoed the kinds of statements he’s repeatedly made about problems over the last few months — “Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it” (the IRS scandal), “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest” (the NSA scandal), “This is not a world we should accept” (Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons). He puts himself forward as a man frustrated with what’s happened on his watch, promising change, insisting that nothing of the sort could ever happen again.

There’s a level of semantic distance there, though, that often gets interpreted as an inherent refusal to take responsibility. Obama is, after all, the president. He has more than a little say in what happens within his own administration.

This time, however, Politico wonders how the president could hope to sell this excuse to a public that should know better:

And on this issue, at least, there’s no question the president has been very involved. Leading up to the launch of the website and the rest of the Obamacare rollout, the president was receiving regular briefings, even dropping in to occasional meetings that weren’t on his schedule. Part of the president’s frustration appears to stem directly from that involvement — the question of why wasn’t he given more accurate or expansive information, or a full sense of the problems once they started to appear.

“He’s had a level of skin in this game that’s been under-reported,” said one former senior administration official. “This isn’t a problem that crept up on him. He has been very, very, very focused on it for a long time. He understood the importance of it, and he has made time for it.”

Yes, this is the president’s signature “achievement” (if it ever gets off the ground). His name is on it. As yesterday’s embarrassing press conference/infomercial showed, he will continue to sell it until he’s blue in the face.

But all this amounts to a sense that the president should have known about the kinks in the program. That’s unflattering enough, as it suggests Obama was confused by his own legislation. But as the Washington Post reports today, it was worse than that: the administration did know what was wrong with the ObamaCare web portal. It turns out the system crashed during a weak test–and the White House took the site live anyway.

The question is: why? The administration understood the stakes, and so did the president. What made officials release a broken version of Obama’s signature policy that the public already disliked?

The Post suggests it was a combination of stubbornness and pride:

Some key testing of the system did not take place until the week before launch, according to this person. As late as Sept. 26, there had been no tests to determine whether a consumer could complete the process from beginning to end: create an account, determine eligibility for federal subsidies and sign up for a health insurance plan, according to two sources familiar with the project.

People working on the project knew that Oct. 1 was set in stone as a launch date. “We named it the tyranny of the October 1 date,” said a person close to the project.

They set a date and were unwilling to take the embarrassing step of admitting it wasn’t ready by then. One developer, the AP reports, “was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time.”

Both the Post and AP reports are worth reading in full for the whole story, but they paint a picture of a government program in complete disarray. And it is fitting that this is the accomplishment that bears Obama’s name, since its disastrous rollout embodies the president’s flaws as a chief executive. He may not be experienced, voters were told in 2008, but he has a presidential temperament, a compromising spirit, a gift for management and efficiency, and a preference for adaptability and ideological flexibility over dogma. The brief history of his most prized accomplishment proves otherwise.

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