Level With Us, Mr. President

President Obama Discusses Immigration Reform At The White House

Barro wants some straight talk:

The administration is still behaving like it is trying to get Obamacare enacted, and therefore its top public relations task is to bury negative stories about the law and emphasize the upside, like heavy consumer interest. But this is a mistake. Obamacare is already the law, and its long term political success is going to be determined by its substantive policy success — including whether consumers are able to sign up and get the health coverage they want.

There’s no reason not to level with the public right now, unless the truth is so horrible and the website is so un-fixable that Obama administration officials can’t bring themselves to discuss the matter publicly. I suspect that’s not the case. But I’d feel better if they stopped trying to sell the line that the issue here is basically a great product whose website is getting overwhelmed by intense interest, and started speaking frankly about what’s wrong and how they’re fixing it.

Couldn’t put it better myself. Charlie Cook also has a typically shrewd take – even as Captain Hindsight. From the get-go, there has been what you might call a defensive-aggressive approach to the ACA. By defensive-aggressive, I mean a classic Democratic trait which is to believe that you are more enlightened than the country at large and must therefore govern with both relentlessness and some degree of stealth. The Republican refusal to engage constructively on the question made this much worse, of course. But the blame lies, in the end, with the president. He should have been far more proactive and forthright about the desperate need for reform, and never stopped making those core points. He was admirably persistent in pushing this reform through, but so far from persistent in making the case for it.

Yes, he got universal healthcare through an American polity usually incapable of producing such major policy shifts – besting Nixon and Clinton. But he did so by maneuvering deftly through the system, rather than making it a constant refrain in his public appearances. He has made some great speeches on this, but if it is your core domestic initiative, you have to be much more relentless in your explanation and persuasion. I know the presidency is a tough job, and God knows he has had a lot on his plate – but he’s the one who insisted (rightly) that a president must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Perhaps spooked by the 2010 Congressional elections, the president pocketed his controversial domestic win and then laid low. Healthcare was not one of his rallying cries in the election – because it was not the most popular part of his agenda. But over the long haul, legitimizing his healthcare law and reminding us of its core gains – lower costs, no bar on pre-existing conditions, and an end to free-riding – was more important than simply securing re-election the least difficult way. Then, too defensively, the Obama team waited until the website roll-out to make their case – hoping, presumably, to capitalize on what they imagined would be a great online experience. Then came the mismanaged disaster, followed by ever more defensive – and somewhat opaque – public statements. Kathleen Sebelius’s appearance on the Daily Show (a key demographic for the law) was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen of a public official defending her own work. It was a textbook case in how not to talk to the public. It has gone downhill from there, including the president’s super-lame Rose Garden mix of ebullience and defensiveness.

What we need is candor. We need the president first of all to take personal responsibility for this failure. He needs to apologize to the country for what was either terrible executive branch management or negligence. And he needs to fire those responsible as a simple matter of accountability. If he had no clue of the train-wreck, his administration is not functioning correctly.  The problems were foreseen as long ago as this spring by Max Baucus. He wasn’t clairvoyant about the website, but he presciently warned of a looming train-wreck because the exchanges would not be ready on time and because the administration had done such a piss-poor job of communicating the core provisions to the public. He was in constant touch with Sebelius, and regarded their exchanges as futile.

This is not about the concept of the ACA – although its complexity, a function in part of the political Rubik’s Cube any healthcare form needs to solve in America, is an obvious weakness (Ross Douthat’s examinations of that are enlighteningly fair-minded). This is about competence and confidence. If the federal government were a business, and the ACA were a new product, its stocks would be in the toilet right now. If Apple made an iPhone that experienced massive failures on the consumer end from the start, it would be withdrawn. But, of course, the government is not a business, and the ACA is not just a product but a law. But competence still matters a huge amount.

I’m sure many are working furiously to fix the website problems. Things may work out in the end, as they did in Massachusetts and with Medicare D, after early choppy waters. But competence also requires confidence. Confidence requires extreme candor from the top. Stop trying to sell a product people cannot easily buy. Explain why this happened, and who has taken responsibility. Fire them. Apologize. Be totally forthright about everything you know. Explain the plan to fix it – clearly. Reiterate the core goals of the law – with an emphasis on its many popular aspects. If some kind of delay is needed, say so now. Don’t stumble back into it later. Or do it in embarrassing half-ass stages.

This is basic public relations. It should be reflexive for a president who told us he would admit error when he has screwed up, unlike his predecessor. Instead, we have defensive acknowledgments of the bleeding obvious, and a drip-drip-drip of bad news leaking from congressional hearings and reporters. At this point, the president is behind the ball. He needs to get ahead of it – and fast. Or he will begin to look like George W Bush spinning his Iraq fiasco. Unlike Bush, Obama has many supporters prepared to confront and criticize him publicly, which is a help. The president now needs to rise to this occasion or have his own singular policy choice, like Bush’s, become a synonym for government incompetence. Confess, Mr President. Americans forgive failures explained forthrightly. They rightly never forgive those who cannot plainly and clearly admit error and take responsibility.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)