Frank Rich on the National Circus: Obamacare’s Failures Are Obama’s Fault

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. President Barack Obama responds to questions from Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel on November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama discussed immigration reform and the health care rollout, among other topics. (Photo by Drew Angerer-Pool/Getty Images)
Photo: Pool/2013 Getty Images

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: Obama’s poll numbers plummet, JPMorgan Chase agrees to a record settlement, and the Cheneys engage in a gay-marriage civil war.

President Obama and his health-care law are reeling right now. A CBS poll released today finds that Obama’s job-approval rating has plummeted nine points since October to a new low of 37 percent. And, perhaps more ominous, the same CBS poll found that only 58 percent of Democrats now support the Affordable Care Act, down from 74 percent in October. (Overall support is at an anemic 31 percent.) If we continue to see polls like this, will Obamacare survive?
The fate of Obamacare will not be determined by polls, even ones as terrible as these. It will be determined by whether the law works, and starts working in time to recede as a red-hot issue when the 2014 election season begins in earnest. If does get its act together, the political crisis will evaporate. For all the press hysteria of the past week, this is not Katrina or Iraq. Even if the Affordable Care Act fails, its legacy will not include the destruction of a city like New Orleans or a pointless war that left thousands upon thousands of Americans and Iraqis dead. And also: Let’s not forget — as apparently many have — that only weeks ago, there were apocalyptic poll numbers like this (worse, actually) for the GOP in the aftermath of the government shutdown. Both parties are in a race to the bottom, and the identity of the biggest loser will not be revealed until just under a year from now.

But the biggest mystery may still remain. How could a president whose signature achievements include the health-care law and two brilliantly tech-centric presidential campaigns screw this up so badly? How could he say even as late as September 26 that the site would work “the same way you shop for a TV on Amazon”? How could he repeatedly make the false promise that all Americans could keep their insurance plans, and then take so long to recognize that he was wrong and mobilize to correct it? This is hardly Kathleen Sebelius’s fault. It is Barack Obama’s fault — a failure of management for sure, and possibly one of character. There is something rotten in the inner-management cocoon of the White House, and if the president doesn’t move to correct it, his situation will truly be hopeless for the rest of this term.

JPMorgan Chase agreed yesterday to pay $13 billion to settle a host of charges related to the sale of mortgage securities that ignited the housing bubble. Two years ago, you wrote in New York, “What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression.” This settlement is the biggest fine a single company has ever paid to the U.S. government. But do you think fines alone, rather than criminal prosecution, will hold Wall Street to account?
In brief, no. Were it not for the prodding of administration outsiders like Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, even this much restitution might not have been achieved. And even so, the lack of accountability is striking. Until the executives who presided over crimes like this are held accountable — and not just at JPMorgan Chase — justice has not been served. This $13 billion fine is just “a mere bag of shells,” as Ralph Kramden might have said — the cost of a huge bank doing bad business. And JPMorgan Chase, which still has to answer for its dealings with China and Madoff, is actually one of the better banks. There are worse culprits who have gotten away. This will indeed haunt the Obama administration, and implicitly a presidential campaign by Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s economic team gave us the too-big-to-fail culture that greased the skids for the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.  

The latest theater in the ongoing fight over marriage equality is inside the Cheney family, where Mary Cheney and her wife Heather Poe publicly rebuked Mary’s sister, Wyoming Senate candidate Liz, for her opposition to same-sex marriage. What should we make of this intra-Cheney feud? Does it say anything larger about where the marriage battle is at the end of 2013?
What I find most shocking about this story is that Dick and Lynne Cheney would publicly weigh in at all — let alone side with one daughter against another for no apparent purpose other than to help their other child win a Senate seat in Wyoming. I suspect that their intervention will have the exact opposite effect, and harm Liz Cheney in the GOP primary there (where she is a carpetbagger from Virginia facing a long-time conservative incumbent Mike Enzi). All of this tells us more about the Cheneys than we want to know, and surely is repellent to most who are looking on, whatever their party. What parent would disown an adult child’s entire family for presumed political gain? But to answer the larger question: This fracas shows that the issue of same-sex marriage is going to remain a big and bloody battleground within the GOP that will drive away young voters nationwide for several election cycles to come.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which has, of course, incited a flurry of pieces on Camelot, conspiracy theories, and the meaning of Dallas. You wrote about the Kennedy assassination in 2011, calling his presidency a “half-remembered dream.” Is there a compelling reason beyond nostalgia and magazine sales that we should stop to remember that presidency and its tragic end?
The voluminous outpouring of all things Kennedy this month has been extraordinary. Of course we should remember what was good about the brief Kennedy presidency and mourn what was lost with his assassination. But what we’re seeing right now is a tsunami of nostalgia, celebrity worship, true-crime hysteria, sentimentality, and pseudo-patriotic treacle – much of it fueled (and consumed) by the boomers who lived through JFK’s life and death. This is one of those crazy American moments when the culture goes wild to such a degree that facts, proportion, and history are drowned out by the gooey syrup of media overkill. That overkill may also be an overcompensation for own historical moment, when we feel so let down by our current political leaders that we’d rather fantasize about an increasingly distant, much romanticized Camelot.

Frank Rich: Obamacare’s Failures Are Obama’s