Commentary Magazine


Obama Sticks With Incompetence

Yesterday on CNN embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she had not informed President Obama about the problems affecting the website prior to it going live on October 1. That the person in charge of implementing the president’s signature health-care legislation was not only incapable of protecting the administration from a major embarrassment but actually kept him out of the loop about an impending debacle ought to be enough to get her (or anyone in similar circumstances) fired. But as Politico reports today, the consensus in Washington is that Sebelius is still untouchable because of the political difficulties involved in replacing her.

That Sebelius’s job is not in jeopardy because of politics tells us a lot about what’s wrong with this administration. Though the president and his followers seem to spend most of their time excoriating their Republican opponents as mindless partisans, once again this seems to be a case of projection. The fact that Republicans and conservative pundits are calling for Sebelius’s head seems to be enough reason to keep her in office despite her painfully obvious incompetence demonstrated during the ObamaCare rollout. The president has said that Republicans would stop calling it ObamaCare once they saw that it worked. But now that it isn’t working and with no assurances that it will be functioning properly anytime soon, he may be thinking that Reason’s Nick Gillespie was onto something when he suggested the other day that the White House may now be thinking that it should be renamed “SebeliusCare.”

The feeling in the White House seems to be that attacks on Sebelius are just the latest Republican tactic in their ongoing campaign to stop ObamaCare. There’s some truth to that. But by framing the issue in this manner, they are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. Of course, conservatives are going to be quick to find fault with anything to do with legislation that they bitterly opposed. But the president, who focused more on trying to sell the country on a bill that is already the law of the land and can’t be repealed while he is in office than on analyzing the website’s problems during his speech earlier this week, needs to forget about what Republicans are saying and understand that the bad performance of his own appointees is what is killing the program.

It is true that replacing Sebelius would set off a confirmation fight that would make it difficult to get virtually anyone approved to run HHS. That would provide the GOP with a chance to essentially re-litigate their complaints about legislation they believe is an unwarranted expansion of government power that hurts as many if not more people as it helps. But if he watched the CNN interview, the president has to be thinking that if he’s stuck with Sebelius for the duration of this mess, he’s in bigger trouble than even some of his critics think.

The assumption on the left is that the website problem is, as the White House continues to insist, mere “glitches.” But if, as more and more are starting to suspect, the real trouble is systemic rather than one involving technological quirks, what is needed at HHS is someone who understands such issues or at least someone capable of hiring people who do. What is so damning about Sebelius’ behavior is not so much that she doesn’t understand website design but that when confronted with a system that was clearly not ready for prime time, she didn’t have the presence of mind to consult with the president and alert him to the probability that sticking to the October 1 launch date was an invitation to disaster.

The reaction to criticism of Sebelius illustrates that the president is far more interested in preventing further discussions of the merits of the legislation than in actually seeing that it is properly administered. Though Democrats claim no one could be confirmed to replace her, were the president to seek out a non-political figure from the business world with experience with these sorts of problems, such a person would likely be confirmed without too much trouble.

The president may think that his appointment of acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients to oversee the website problems essentially gets Sebelius off the hook. Perhaps Sebelius also thinks so. But the idea that the person and department charged with overseeing ObamaCare is not also responsible for its full implementation is laughable. This confusion also further confirms GOP arguments that the whole thing is just too complicated for the D.C. bureaucracy to handle.

This is just the rollout of the first part of a complicated and costly piece of legislation that will have a potentially devastating impact on the economy. If Sebelius can’t handle this, what makes anyone think she’ll do any better with the rest of it? And if Obama is so obsessed with not listening to his critics that he is willing to stick with a proven incompetent, what does that say about his management skills?

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