Media Buzz

Did Sebelius skate at ObamaCare hearing? Whatever

Will HHS secretary stay on the job?


Drudge broke out the huge type to call Kathleen Sebelius “The Most Hated Woman in America,” which seems ridiculous.

Everyone knows it’s Miley Cyrus.

Sebelius was certainly the most televised woman in America yesterday as the cable networks went wall-to-wall with her House grilling. And the Health and Human Services secretary came prepared with a sorry strategy.

“You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site,” Sebelius said.

That approach, in contrast to the grudging admissions by many officials during the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, seemed to defuse the hearing. It’s harder to beat up on someone who admits fault, and the session seemed to lack the kind of fireworks that television loves. The Republicans may have cast her as the Wicked Witch of the West on Halloween eve, but they never knocked her off the broomstick.

Sebelius was bureaucratic at times as the hearing got into the policy weeds, but her buck-stops-here style guaranteed that the apology would be the lead—and deflect some of the heat from President Obama.

In fact, when Republican Rep. Greg Harper kept pressing about whether Obama was responsible for the debacle, Sebelius replied “whatever.” This immediately became a thing on the web.

Another angle that was hot online: GOP Rep. Joe Barton invoking “The Wizard of Oz” in telling the former Kansas governor: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

In an exchange with another Republican, Cory Gardner, the congressman asked why Sebelius wasn’t in ObamaCare: “You could decide to drop your coverage of your employer. You have the choice.”

Said Sebelius: “That is not true, sir. If I have affordable coverage in my workplace, I am not eligible to go into the workplace.”

Not exactly the stuff of high drama.

Rush Limbaugh, for one, found the hearing “very frustrating.” Sebelius was “the punching bag,” he said, but “I don’t know that the Republicans did much damage. It’s like they’re afraid to. It’s like there’s still a fear of going after Obama.” Perhaps, he wondered, they were told to “not be mean.”

Most people don’t sit around watching congressional hearings for hours, so the takeaway—the featured sound bites and web headlines—will be the apology. Perhaps that’s why Sebelius kept circling back to the we’re-also-unhappy tactic “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of”  

Even Karl Rove said afterward that she had handled herself well, in part through the use of “mini-filibusters.”

To be sure, Sebelius is going to remain the face of a botched program that is not going to be fixed anytime soon. The question now is whether the coverage of Sebelius starts to soften. Could her poised appearance change the “Saturday Night Live” parody image of her? Will there be fewer stories about whether Sebelius will be forced to resign?


The National Journal says Sebelius isn’t going anywhere:

“Chalk part of it up to the hands-off approach Obama takes when it comes to his Cabinet and a self-preserving one favored by Sebelius's. Throw in a mutual affection that's just strong enough to keep them bound together, mix in their shared love of basketball, and it's a formula for survival…

“The president has been impressed both by Sebelius's persistence and her loyalty and, hard as it is to imagine now, her political smarts as another Midwesterner who's won statewide. It's easy to forget that the road to Obamacare's passage was brutal and there was no more enthusiastic cheerleader than Sebelius—whose moderate Kansas credentials helped sell the plan. Before that, she stepped into the HHS slot without fuss when Senator Tom Daschle's nomination faltered before it began.”

Sebelius’s insistence that she’s not eligible for ObamaCare ran into some online fact-checking, including from Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein

“I dropped a note to Tim Jost, a law professor at Washington & Lee University, and arguably the one human being on this entire planet who knows the Affordable Care Act the very best. He's pretty convinced that, if she wanted to, Sebelius could sign up for marketplace coverage. It would be a pretty crummy financial deal — she would forgo robust employer and Medicare coverage to pay her own way — but it would be legal.

“‘She could purchase a plan on an exchange since she is lawfully present in the U.S. and not incarcerated,’ Jost e-mailed. ‘She could not get premium tax credits both because she has employer coverage and because she is Medicare eligible.’”

It’s now apparent that Obama’s oft-repeated pledge that “If you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan” is being treated as the new “Read my lips—no new taxes.”

The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, examines the arguments and awards the president Four Pinocchios:

“The president’s statements were sweeping and unequivocal — and made both before and after the bill became law. The White House now cites technicalities to avoid admitting that he went too far in his repeated pledge, which, after all, is one of the most famous statements of his presidency.”

The public appears split on the program, based on the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll:

“Thirty-seven percent of respondents say that the website woes are a short-term technical problem that can be fixed, while 31 percent believe they point to a longer-term issue with the law’s design that can’t be corrected.

Another 30 percent think it’s too soon to say.

“Not surprisingly, this divide breaks along party lines: 60 percent of Democrats agree that this is a short-term problem, versus 54 percent of Republicans who argue it’s a longer-term issue.”

CNN, meanwhile, reports that the White House is intimidating insurance companies not to publicly criticize Obamacare:

"What is going on is, behind the scenes attempt by the White House to at least keep insurerers from publicly criticizing what is happening on this Affordable Care Act rollout. Basically, if you speak out, if you are quoted, you're going to get a call from the White House, pressure to be quiet."

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.