Obama Agonistes

The major clusterfuck of the website, the breaking of an unequivocal promise, and a media eager to prove it’s not a lapdog to the president have all combined to bring the president down. The latest polling is grim. Here’s the poll of polls on Obama’s approval, since January:

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Here’s the favorability chart for the same period:

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The question is: what does this mean and what does it portend? I don’t know, but I can express how this has changed my view of the president. On the core question of whether I believe the president deliberately lied to us, I’m inclined to believe he didn’t. His explanation of his broken promise last week was depressing but convincing to me. And I’m not alone: “By 52 percent to 44 percent, Americans say they think he told people what he thought was correct at the time.”

As for the website debacle: Canada and the UK had similar disasters when they attempted something on this scale. And the refusal of many states to set up their own exchanges made the burden on the federal website far greater than might have been imagined. The relative success of many of the states’ own sites is more proof that federalism works, and more proof of the sabotage of the law of the land that Republicans have engaged in.

But what I cannot get past is the management failure. Walter Russell Mead made a strong case on this yesterday:

Obamacare is the single most important initiative of his presidency. The website rollout was, as the President himself has repeatedly stated, the most important element of the law’s debut. Domestically speaking there was no higher priority for the President and his staff than getting this right. And the President is telling the world that a week before the disaster he had no idea how that website was doing.

I’d cavil about the ACA being the single most important initiative of his presidency (pulling the world out of an incipient second depression and carefully unwinding the Bush-Cheney catastrophe in foreign policy beat it, in my view). But it sure is a key element in his domestic agenda for his second term. It was going to require a real focus to get the federal government to work on this core matter. And yet the president was somehow blindsided by this fiasco. One wonders: what on earth was he doing this past year? He clearly understood the importance of the website’s functionality, and yet he didn’t get into the innards of the government to avoid a debacle.

Substantively, I think the ACA may well have the last laugh.  We are certainly primed by the press for comeback stories. But I can’t predict the future, except that the core issues that the ACA deals with are not going away and even the nihilist GOP will have to offer something at some point to address them. What I do know is that the president was inexcusably AWOL on this for the past nine months. And that matters.

Protected by too-loyal staffers, let down by contractors, sabotaged and distracted by the Republican war on him, he lost his grip on his own agenda. That is now embedded in my consciousness, and that of many others. For a candidate who insisted that a president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, there’s no escaping the failure.

But, to revisit a theme, what matters in a president is not that he is flawless. It is how he responds to the flaws, once exposed. Obama always said he would not be a perfect president, and, unlike others, I found his presser last week to be consistent with much of what he has said and done in the past. He’s also president for the next three years. What we should observe is how he now reacts; how he shuffles staff; how he re-applies himself to the nuts and bolts of the federal government in the months ahead. Unlike Bush, we know he’s capable of this. We’ve just seen him coasting incompetently on healthcare in his second term thus far. To suddenly extrapolate from that a failed presidency is absurdly overblown, especially given the huge achievements already under is belt, the remaining potential for the ACA to work, and the enormous prize of ending the Cold War with Iran that is now within his reach.

He has been humbled and chastened. That’s a good thing. But reveling in that, rather than acutely watching how he adjusts in response, is a function of obsession with the man rather than concern for the country. He’s under probation now. His potential success will matter just as much as his obvious and glaring current failure. And unlike some, I want him to succeed in this. Because I want this country to succeed as well, and its current healthcare system is so profoundly inefficient and ineffective for so many that the status quo is simply not an option.