Today the White House returns to what it does best. Unfortunately, that isn’t governing; it’s campaigning. So after two months of a disastrous ObamaCare rollout, instead of sitting down and figuring out the implications of a bill that still aren’t fully understood and why the healthcare.gov website is still not fully functional, the president is about to hit the road in full campaign mode to sell the country on the bill’s benefits and blaming all of its problems on Republicans. The point of this new push is public relations, not policy. The administration has been flummoxed by its inability to control the ObamaCare narrative after the website didn’t work and the nation discovered that the president’s promises about people keeping their insurance and doctors if they liked them proved to be a lie. So their answer is to go back to their strengths that won the 2012 election: captivating the nation with the magic of Obama’s personality and scapegoating the GOP.
Will it work? Anyone who underestimates the president’s still potent powers of persuasion is making a mistake. It’s also probably foolish to think that the mainstream media that has gone off the reservation in recent months won’t respond to Obama’s planned three-week-long dog-and-pony show as they always did before he was mired in a spate of second-term scandals and disasters. But the problem with the administration’s strategy is that recasting the ObamaCare narrative will require more than a good public-relations strategy. So long as the website doesn’t work, millions are losing their coverage and being faced with higher costs and with the implications of the new insurance landscape still a question for the majority of Americans who are covered by their employers, a few presidential speeches and events highlighting the minority that will undoubtedly benefit from the bill won’t change the narrative.
Up until the last couple of months, both Democrats and Republicans had assumed that once the benefits to the poor started flowing from ObamaCare the popularity of this new example of government largesse would make the bill untouchable. Thus, the president believes that all he needs to do to turn back the page to where we were before October is to spend enough time and energy highlighting those who stand to gain from the plan.
That seems to make sense, especially when you assume, as he clearly does, that as long as he is out in front of the camera speaking, the press and public opinion will be in his pocket. Surely, if the White House works hard enough to put on a saleable production starring the 44th president accompanied by those with hard luck stories designed to pluck at the nation’s heartstrings, there should be no problem in diverting attention from the website. And if that is combined with a full-court press aimed at blaming ObamaCare’s problems on an obstructionist and unpopular Republican Party, White House strategists are sure that their current problems will soon be overcome if not completely forgotten.
But there are serious problems with this plan that the president isn’t taking into account.
First is that the assumption about the bill’s ultimate popularity is an enormous miscalculation. Unlike Social Security and Medicare, the two great entitlement expansions to which ObamaCare is most often compared and which benefited most Americans and hurt almost none, this bill is creating a large number of losers along with a relatively small population of winners. The presidential lie about people keeping their coverage and doctors wasn’t merely a bad choice of language or a mistake. It was an attempt to finesse the fact that ObamaCare is fundamentally a redistributionist measure that would reward some but penalize others. Three weeks of presidential speeches and attempts to highlight the winners won’t convince the losers that they are better off.
Just as importantly, going into campaign mode won’t change the fact that the president’s credibility has been severely, if not fatally, damaged by the lies he told to get the bill passed. That problem can be finessed by the White House and even walked back to some extent. But they are ignoring the fact that once a president’s mendacity has been exposed in this manner, his credibility can’t be recaptured. At this point, presidential salesmanship should be regarded as a depreciating asset rather than a magic political bullet.
Nor can the president rely on his familiar whipping boys to dig him out of the hole he has dug for himself on health care. It may be that Republicans remain even more unpopular than the Democrats and that the familiar narrative about obstructionism still has some traction. But blaming the GOP for sabotaging ObamaCare is a thesis so patently absurd that even most of the liberal media has trouble swallowing it.
After all, it was not the Republicans who designed the healthcare.gov website. Nor can it be asserted that it is their fault that after two months, it is still not fully functional. They also have been mere bystanders as administration promises that it will work continue to be proved false. This week’s proclamation from the White House that the website is now functional was another easily disproved assertion since its back end—the element that allows people to actually purchase the insurance—is still a work in progress. Nor is it likely that most Americans will blame Republicans for being right all along about their claims that the government is incompetent to run health care and that the president’s promises have been based on untruths. Indeed, the GOP calls for delaying the implementation of the bill that were decried as extremist back in September during the government shutdown controversy are now seen as prescient and are being adopted, piece by piece, by the administration.
Democrats assume that once the president gets back on his old message, all their problems will disappear. But merely hitting the reset button on the same arguments used when the bill was passed despite the opposition of most Americans won’t be enough. The negative impact of ObamaCare on the health-care coverage of many Americans and on the economy in general is just starting to be felt. Three weeks of dog-and-pony shows won’t change that or allow Democrats to go into 2014 with the same confidence they had only a few months ago.