Yesterday, President Obama gave a Rose Garden speech that was one part infomercial and one part excoriation.
“Thousands of people are signing up and saving money as we speak,” the President said. “Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website. It’s much more.”
And, as Dana Milbank writes satirically for the Washington Post, “If you act now, you’ll also get the matching carving fork, the versatile six-in-one kitchen tool, a set of six steak knives and the spiral slicer – all for $9.95.”
But in addition to trying to up-sell the product, President Obama also did his best to downplay the problem.
“While we’re working out the kinks in the system, I want everybody to understand the nature of the problem,” Obama told the crowd. “First of all, even with all the problems at HealthCare.gov, the website is still working for a lot of people – just not as quick or efficient or consistent as we want.”
Just how many is a “lot of people”? It’s impossible to know because the White House won’t release the data, despite it being the key metric in determining the viability of the exchanges. That means either the White House has the information and is refusing to release it because it’s too embarrassing, or the software is so balky that they don’t have the data, which would be even more discomforting.
The Obama Administration’s attempts to micromanage the narrative arguably threatens to create an even bigger problem. As John Dickerson writes for Slate:
The stories keep shifting. Administration officials said the site had been tested as thoroughly as the IRS computer systems that handle electronic tax returns. Now Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius admits the system wasn’t tested enough. In the first several days, administration officials spoke of “glitches,” and Secretary Sebelius asked that people give the government the same amount of slack Apple gets when it launches a new product. But the administration dropped that analogy because, unlike Apple’s quick admission that Apple Maps was a mess, the government can’t just let users install Google Maps (and there have been no quick firings for the mess, as there were at Apple). The president and his team then said the website snafus were the result of huge traffic, but that explanation doesn’t explain the considerable technical problems now being reported. Reports of the extraordinary number of people who have accessed the site are themselves full of fuzzy claims that seek to oversell the success.
There’s a dangerous spiral that can take hold in these situations, as spin intended to distract from the current mess becomes its own problem. That is especially true when the facts demonstrate that the story the administration was selling is too optimistic: Either the White House knew how bad things were and wasn’t playing it straight or it didn’t know how bad things were and is just inept.
This is one problem that President Obama just can’t talk himself out of. In fact, if the White House continues to try and downplay systemic problems as “glitches,” and argue that because “nobody is madder” than the President that “means it’s going to get fixed,” they could be writing themselves into a corner.
The very real problems with the website are going to take a lot of time to fix, not just days or weeks, but probably months. And that’s true no matter how many computer geeks the Obama Administration brings in for it’s so-called “tech surge.” The longer the problems go the more foolish the White House’s attempt to whitewash the problems will look.
Then again, that’s an issue we’ve seen time and time again from an Obama Administration that is undoubtedly fantastic at campaigning, but unquestionably unskilled in the art of governing. They’ve got the sales routine down pat. But there is only so long people will buy a crappy product, no matter how talented the pitchman is.