The Obamacare rollout debacle has officially reached its Katrina Phase, as no less than the New York Times portentously reports that the controversy “raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.” The Obamacare rollout is merely Obama’s most recent Katrina, following in the wake of previous Obama Katrinas such as the Gulf Oil spill, the 2009 swine-flu outbreak, the humanitarian disaster in Haiti, the General Motors bailout, Hurricane Sandy, Syria, and the now-forgotten springtime scandals — which, the New York Times reported in an equally portentous news analysis last May, “have reinforced fears of an overreaching government while calling into question Mr. Obama’s ability to master his own presidency.”
If every one of Obama’s Katrinas were an actual Katrina, America as we know it would long since have ceased to exist and we’d be living in a watery post-apocalyptic hellscape.
It is certainly true that the botched rollout of healthcare.gov is a managerial failure roughly on par with FEMA’s botched response to Katrina. But, in addition to not having resulted in any deaths, the health-care botch differs from Katrina in that it is an event that can be fixed over time.
It may seem at the moment as if Obamacare itself is collapsing. Conservatives have considered the law’s collapse self-evident for three years now, and some of them have already moved on to predicting the collapse of American liberalism itself.
Though it’s possible Obamacare will collapse, it is not collapsing right now. For all the optics of panic and discombobulation, there is no plausible legislative coalition to repeal or even substantively cripple the law. Some vulnerable Democrats are voting for the Upton Bill, a House Republican proposal that would seriously undermine the Affordable Care Act, but the vote probably won’t survive the Senate, and even if it did, it lacks a veto-proof majority. What we’re seeing in Congress is not a serious effort to unravel the law, but an effort to seed attack ads for the midterm races.
The keep-your-plan waiver President Obama announced yesterday was, likewise, an exercise in optics. Numerous news reports have pointed out that his proposal is unworkable and substantively meaningless. This, paradoxically, is good news for Obamacare. Obama’s waiver to keep unregulated, cherry-picked insurance plans going can’t work because insurers have already adjusted their plans to accommodate the new Obamacare regulations. It is too late to go back to a pre-Obamacare world.
In one of the many essays over the last few days predicting that Obama’s current woes foretell the demise of his presidency and of government itself, headlined “Obamacare’s Problems Could Haunt Democrats for Years,” this bit seems especially telling:
Kettl says no major federal initiative has failed so thoroughly upon its unveiling since the ballistic-missile program’s first years in the 1950s produced a succession of explosions and failures to launch.
My first thought, upon reading that sentence was, This is crazy — what about the Iraq invasion? Wasn’t that a more thoroughly failed federal initiative? But then, reading it again, I noticed the caveat upon its unveiling. And it may be true. The Iraq war was a success upon its unveiling. Our troops captured Baghdad with ease. War supporters were taunting the skeptics. Even nine months after the start of the war, Democrat Joe Lieberman thought he could better position himself for the nomination by jeering that Howard Dean was “in a spider hole of denial” for continuing his opposition to the war.
What mattered was not the war’s initial success, but its success over time. Likewise, the ballistic-missile failures of the fifties did not actually turn America into a nation of pacifists. The success of a policy initiative upon its unveiling may matter a little, but ultimately not very much.
There’s no doubt that Obama is having a bad political moment. The sluggish economy, the shutdown mess, and now a spate of terrible Obamacare press has weighed down his approval rating by several points. If the administration can make the website functional in time for people to enroll before the March cutoff, the law will start to build a positive constituency that will offset, and eventually outnumber, currently aggrieved individual-market policy holders. If the recovery picks up speed, which recent data hint may happen, his popularity will rise, too. Even if that doesn't happen, Obamacare will have three years to build up momentum before the Obama presidency ends.
If the law continues to flounder, and the economy falls back into recession, Republicans could win the full control of government in 2016 they need to repeal the law. Unless and until that happens, Obamacare is not going away.