A sympathetic visitor to the far-left website DemocraticUnderground.com posted a direct plea to President Obama this weekend: “Mr. President, could you please avoid throwing the RWNJ’s [right-wing nut-jobs] any more red meat about government incompetence and being too big and inefficient?”
Prompting the backlash was a set of remarks the president made in his broad-ranging interview last Thursday with NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd. The most attention-grabbing aspect of the interview was Obama’s qualified apology to Americans who liked their health insurance plans but who, contrary to the president’s repeated pledges over the last three years, have not been able to keep them.
Less noticed was the president’s explanation to Todd about why the ObamaCare website, HealthCare.gov, has proved so unworkable in its first two months of operation. Obama cited the procurement rules the federal government is required to follow when contracting for services like those involved in the ObamaCare rollout.
“When we buy I.T. services generally, it is so bureaucratic and so cumbersome that a whole bunch of it doesn't work or it ends up being way over cost. And yeah, in some ways, I should have anticipated that,” the president told Todd. “And I actually think that once we get this, this particular website fixed, there are going to be some lessons learned that we can apply to the federal government, generally.”
The irony is that modern American politics has no greater champion of the efficacy, and value, of the federal government. And never has the president been more vocal on the subject than in the wake of last month’s shutdown of the federal government, which he considered a crystalline opportunity to drive the point home.
“We hear all the time about how government is the problem,” Obama said in an October 17 East Room statement, after the shutdown ended. “I think the American people during this shutdown had a chance to get some idea of all the things, large and small, that government does that make a difference in people's lives.”
Conservatives responded to the Todd interview with incredulity. “You don't expect the president of the United States to say that ‘The problem is this bureaucracy that I've been building up all of these years?’” asked Arthur C. Brooks, a trained economist and head of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.
“I think that he is grasping at ways to explain in technical terms what was fundamentally an ideological problem, and a leadership problem. The truth of the matter is the government is trying to do something the government is ill-suited to do…And that his leadership was largely to blame at virtually every step of the way.”
Supporters of the president saw his critics drawing unsound inferences from the troubled rollout of ObamaCare, extrapolating from the website’s problems a much more serious malady for the Affordable Care Act.
“I think lots of conservatives and lots of Republicans who are opponents of ObamaCare,” said Fox News contributor Juan Williams, “would love to just say, ‘Well, look, they didn’t do [the website] well; that means that the IRS won't be able to enforce it well. That means that the Department of Human Services won't be able to monitor it well, that it's all going to crash down.’ But again, I think that is at this point not based in logic so much as wishful thinking….No one would say that the Defense Department isn’t doing a good job – and they have big procurement problems.”
At a briefing for reporters last month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked if the roll out of ObamaCare has not demonstrated the limited capabilities of Uncle Sam. “Doesn't the private sector do this better than government does?” asked Peter Alexander of NBC News.
Carney emphasized that ObamaCare builds on, rather than seeks to supplant, the private sector. “The fact is,” said Carney with a chuckle, “we have experts from the private sector as well as from government and academia working on this problem, or the problems, with the website.”
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).