Frank Rich on the National Circus: The Obamacare Debacle Could Kneecap Liberalism

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Photo: Karen BleierKAREN BLEIER/AFP/GEtty Images2013 AFP

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Kathleen Sebelius apologizes for the Obamacare rollout, Edward Snowden leaks more NSA documents, and Jay Leno books Ted Cruz.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, appeared in front of a House committee yesterday to apologize for the bungled launch of healthcare.gov, and to explain why many holders of individual policies were receiving cancellation notices. Obamacare passed by the skin of its teeth, and survived a Supreme Court challenge and a government shutdown. Is this just its latest growing pains? Or are we watching its undoing from within?

 

We don’t know yet, but the resolution of what Sebelius herself described as a “debacle” will be conclusive and transparent: Either the Affordable Care Act will be working for those who are meant to benefit from it, or it won’t be, by early 2014. And that means it must work for those 14 million Americans with individual policies who were misled by President Obama’s repeated mantra that they could keep their existing plans as is. If the ACA does collapse, it’s a disaster for the public. It’s also a crushing blow to the Obama legacy, of course, since this law is his signature domestic accomplishment. The new Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll out today shows the president is already paying a price: For the first time in his national political career, those who think positively of him (41 percent) are outnumbered by those who are negative (45 percent). If the ACA fails, it will also be a serious setback for the Democratic party and liberalism in general, since that failure will greatly further the conservative case that, as Ronald Reagan put it, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

 

That said, the jury is still out, and the Sebelius hazing was meaningless theater. But the government shutdown is already a certifiable political failure. And among that failure’s consequences is a complete erosion of whatever little confidence the country still had in Congress. Compared to the approval ratings of Republicans and congressional leaders, even the weakened Obama wins out by margins of two-to-one or more. So I don’t think the Sebelius show has anything to do with the ACA’s ultimate fate; no one in America gives a damn about anything that happens in a congressional hearing room these days. I also think that the shutdown has severely wounded the Republican strategy of turning the demonization of Obamacare into its main political cause. As bad as the news has been about healthcare.gov and the more substantive failings of the ACA this far, what’s also getting through is that the GOP will stop at nothing to sabotage it, from shutting down the government at the federal level to throwing up every obstacle it can state-by-state. That incessant negativity has backfired, as the polls indicate, and will harm the GOP further if Obamacare starts to deliver more often than it misfires. That if remains a big if, however.

 

Over the past two weeks, Edward Snowden has leaked documents showing that the NSA was intercepting user data from Google and Yahoo and monitoring the communications of allied heads of state. So far, civil libertarians and angry citizens haven't been able to change NSA policies. Will pissed-off world leaders and irate tech CEOs succeed where they have failed?

 

I think it’s fair to say that Angela Merkel and even allied leaders lacking her clout with Obama will, at least for the rest of this administration, be spared any further American snooping. That said, there’s little evidence to suggest that most NSA behavior will change. That can only happen if American voters demand it, and through two presidencies now, ever since the passage of the Patriot Act more than a decade ago, a large segment of the American public has shrugged it off. As I wrote after the first Snowden revelations, part of this is because Americans are now so inured to giving up their private information for the sake of social empowerment and consumer convenience — whether to social media or shopping sites — that they view privacy as a lost cause anyway. And so they are not shocked at each new headline about that privacy’s violation by government. You’d think this week’s horror tale in particular would cause a major uproar — that (in the Washington Post account) the NSA can “collect at will from hundreds of millions of user accounts” at Google and Yahoo. But where’s the outrage from the general public? How many Americans are abandoning Gmail today? I would guess that more Yahoo users were angry about the recent changes in its e-mail interface than they are about the NSA snooping. Until that dynamic in public opinion is reversed, there will be no incentive for politicians to crack down on the national surveillance state endorsed by both Republican and Democratic presidents and countenanced by most congressional leaders in both parties.

 

 

The Times and the Washington Post ran almost identical news analyses earlier this week calling Barack Obama a "bystander president" for saying he didn't know about the health-care-website problems or heads-of-state-spying program. Is this a legitimate critique, or just the latest bit of "if only the president would lead" Beltway bluster?

 

This is the lazy conventional Beltway wisdom of the moment, so of course we must be suspicious of it. The truth is that Obama shouldn’t be mired in the details of everything — if he did were, he’d then be accused of being Jimmy Carter. Nor should he be proving that he is a leader by preening and posturing in the grand Teddy Roosevelt manner: If that were the true measure of presidential greatness, George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed “decider,” was a genius, and “Mission Accomplished” was a triumph of leadership because it fooled Washington and much of the public into believing that the Iraq war had ended almost a decade before it actually did. But none of this excuses what is clearly a systemic White House failure: You don’t send a president out in public without the facts so he can make a fool of himself by appearing consistently blindsided by mishaps big and small going on under his watch. It’s not Kathleen Sebelius who should be fired, but the coterie of Obama protectors, even if they are loyal lifers like Valerie Jarrett, who are serving him poorly by mismanaging the information flow at the highest levels of the White House.

 

Texas senator Ted Cruz, known for ideological obstinacy rather than rakish charm, has been booked as a guest next week on the Tonight show. If you were Jay Leno, what would you ask him? And if you were Cruz, how would you respond?

 

Leno should take the man seriously and ask what he has in store next for Washington, and, by extension, the country. Mitch McConnell has said there will be no more shutdowns. Does Cruz concur? Rick Perry has in the past flirted with the notion of secession if Texas doesn’t get its way. Is Cruz down with that? He has gotten very far with much of the Republican base, if not the GOP elites and Establishment, by being an uncompromising radical, so if I were him, I wouldn’t start compromising now. But luckily I am not him — or Jay Leno — and for both of these blessings, I am hugely thankful.