Kathleen Sebelius is getting pummeled by the media for the disastrous ObamaCare rollout, and now she’s mounting a new defense.
Not directly, of course. The secretary is sticking to her bland talking points in the rare interviews she grants. But people sympathetic to her are making the case behind the scenes that she’s not to blame, as we see in this New York Times story:
“Although Ms. Sebelius runs the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency directly responsible for the health care law, there are questions about how deeply she was involved in the development of the troubled Web site.”
Here’s the blind quote: “‘Kathleen has the title, but she doesn’t have the responsibility or in many respects the kind of wide authority and access to the president that she really needs to make a difference,’ said one person close to Ms. Sebelius and the White House, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal decision-making. ‘Everybody thinks that she’s the driving force, but unfortunately she’s not.’”
See? Sebelius shouldn’t be the fall guy because she doesn’t have much power and isn’t really running the health care show. Which is not terribly flattering, but beats the alternative: that she’s a powerful and hands-on manager—and therefore responsible for this mess.
The former Kansas governor is caught up in a Washington ritual, that when a scandal or debacle occurs, heads must roll. The media demand to know why so-and-so is still on the job.
Firing someone is a symbolic act, to be sure, but it also allows a president to appear to be taking decisive action. A top official will frequently offer to resign after concluding that he or she has become a liability to the administration.
That is sometimes unfair to the official being eased out, but it’s also the way politics works, and these folks serve at the pleasure of the president.
“Somebody ought to be fired,” GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander told Fox News. That’s the usual drill.
And in a new Fox News poll, 49 percent say the rollout should lead to firings, while 38 percent disagree.
But all the administration’s signals suggest that, so far at least, that isn’t happening. And Politico says Sebelius isn’t going anywhere because of a stark political reality:
“The White House and Democrats on the Hill know a potential confirmation fight would be so torturous and difficult that they’re better off sticking with the Health and Human Services secretary they’ve got, despite all that’s gone wrong on her watch. … Democrats know the people opposed to the law would never let another person who backed the law through unscathed and would instead use the confirmation hearings to re-litigate the Affordable Care Act — to subpoena reams of information, chase headline-grabbing leads and, overall, do whatever they could to delay or derail it.”
As a media figure, Sebelius hasn’t been a great advocate on her own behalf. She had a disastrous interview with Jon Stewart, and she wasn’t much better on Tuesday with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
Shouldn’t the launch have been delayed?
“There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families. So waiting is not really an option,” Sebelius said.
Has she talked about leaving?
“What I talked about is doing the job that I came here to do. … I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
Sebelius will soon get focused on her testimony next week at a congressional hearing, where she is likely to get grilled. For the media, at least, she remains the piñata of the moment.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz.