Yesterday’s press conference from President Obama on his troubled health-care reform brought to mind a moment from the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. When Rick Perry was famously grasping for that third government agency he would close if elected president, Mitt Romney’s reaction was fascinating. As Kathleen Parker noted after the debate, Romney actually tried to help his rival by suggesting an agency Perry had not yet named.
Obama’s incoherent and interminable rambling yesterday made me wish someone in the room would step in and interrupt. The president elicited a certain amount of pity not only because he was drowning out there but also because he emitted a sense of impending defeat. The “administrative fix” the president proposed will probably not help the situation and might very well make things worse, if it’s even legal. But the president at this point seems to be running out the clock.
Yuval Levin’s post on the press conference is worth reading in full, as usual. But this part struck me as the most consequential aspect to president’s mindset, if indeed the speculation is correct:
Perhaps even more importantly, today’s move could put the exchange system itself in significantly greater peril too. It is very hard to know how many people will actually be keeping their 2013 plans as a result of this new policy, and of course it is also still possible that Congress will pass legislation. But by allowing insurers to keep current customers in pre-Obamacare plans outside the exchanges, and by letting the insurers choose which plans to keep, the administration makes it more likely that the exchanges will not be able to achieve the volume and the risk-balance necessary for them to function. The White House understands that, of course, and the decision to take this step suggests that they think the risk is worth it not just because the immediate political danger is so great but also because the chances of the exchanges actually functioning anyway seem lower and lower all the time.
That last part would be quite significant. According to this analysis, the president is more willing by the day to take risks that would endanger ObamaCare because he is less convinced by the day that his signature “achievement” would survive if left to its own devices. That creates a certain incentive structure: if the president starts to believe the law will fail on its own, he will be desperately in need of a scapegoat. If he says insurance companies don’t yet have to cancel policies, and they do anyway, he can blame them.
But that’s not particularly convincing, and it shows the president to be a subscriber to magical thinking, as if a wave of the scepter rescinds his royal decree. What if insurance companies have already left a market? What if the support infrastructure for certain types of policies within insurance companies had to be radically altered to comply with the new law, and those old plans can’t simply be revivified? Also, it’s just a temporary delay, so how are insurance companies to price out policies that might be in unusually high demand now but which have to be cancelled en masse next year?
The president doesn’t have the answers to those questions, and doesn’t seem to want them. He wants it to be the private sector’s problem now. But if the president believes his health law would collapse anyway, the search for scapegoats is going to incentivize behavior that would only increase the odds of ObamaCare’s collapse in order to share (or pass) the blame. Essentially, where once the president and his allies accused the opposition of being saboteurs, he may now be tempted to actively seek them out. Not because he wants to sabotage ObamaCare–he surely wants it to succeed–but because their involvement brings him political benefits without adding much risk to ObamaCare.
Again, none of this is to suggest Obama has any desire other than for the law to work as planned. But how he proceeds now will depend greatly on his faith in that happening. It will be revealing, too–just as yesterday’s press conference was.