Health Law Rollout’s Stumbles Draw Parallels to Bush’s Hurricane Response
Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
Published: November 14, 2013
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama won the presidency by exploiting a political environment that devoured George W. Bush in a second term plagued by sinking credibility, failed legislative battles, fractured world relations and revolts inside his own party.
President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also 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.
But unlike Mr. Bush, who faced confrontational but occasionally cooperative Democrats, Mr. Obama is battling a Republican opposition that has refused to open the door to any legislative fixes to the health care law and has blocked him at virtually every turn. A contrite-sounding Mr. Obama repeatedly blamed himself on Thursday for the failed health care rollout, which he acknowledged had thrust difficult burdens on his political allies and hurt Americans’ trust in him.
“It’s legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general,” Mr. Obama said. The president did not admit to misleading people about whether they could keep their insurance, but again expressed regret that his assurances turned out to be wrong.
“To those Americans, I hear you loud and clear,” Mr. Obama said as he announced changes intended to allow some people to keep their insurance.
But earning back the confidence of Americans, as he pledged to do, will require Mr. Obama to right more than just the health care law. At home, his immigration overhaul is headed for indefinite delay, and new budget and debt fights loom. Overseas, revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have infuriated American allies, and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear arsenal have set off bipartisan criticism.
For the first time in Mr. Obama’s presidency, surveys suggest that his reserve of good will among the public is running dry. Two polls in recent weeks have reported that a majority of Americans no longer trust the president or believe that he is being honest with them.
“When you start losing the trust and confidence, not only of Congress, but the American people, that makes it even more difficult,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. “You can work yourself out. But you have to be sincere, and you have to be honest.”
The difficulties have put Mr. Obama on the defensive at exactly the moment he might have seized political advantage in a dysfunctional Washington. If not for the health care disaster, the two-week shutdown of the government last month would have been an opportunity for Mr. Obama to sharpen the contrast with Republicans. Democratic lawmakers expressed growing frustration on Thursday with the opportunities the party had missed to hammer home the ideological differences between the two parties. The lawmakers say there is intensifying anxiety within the Democratic caucus that the poor execution of the health care law could bleed into their 2014 re-election campaigns.
Republicans readily made the Hurricane Katrina comparison. “The echoes to the fall of 2005 are really eerie,” said Peter D. Feaver, a top national security official in Mr. Bush’s second term. “Katrina, which is shorthand for bungled administration policy, matches to the rollout of the website.” Looking back, he said, “we can see that some of the things that we hoped were temporary or just blips turned out to be more systemic from a political sense. It’s a fair question of whether that’s happening to President Obama.”
The president’s top aides vehemently reject the comparison of Mr. Obama’s fifth year in office to the latter half of Mr. Bush’s second term. They say Americans lost confidence in Mr. Bush because of his administration’s ineptitude on Hurricane Katrina and its execution of the war in Iraq, while Mr. Obama is struggling to extend health care to millions of people who do not have it. Those are very different issues, they said.
“I’m always very leery of these apocalyptic predictions,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama.
Senior White House officials are nonetheless in crisis mode over the failure so far of what was supposed to be the president’s most significant legislative achievement. “We get that it is a big deal for him, for the law, for the Democrats who voted for him,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. “We are taking it deathly seriously.”
Some Democrats are warning their colleagues against a rush to count Mr. Obama out prematurely. Steve Elmendorf, who was an influential Democratic aide on Capitol Hill in President Bill Clinton’s second term, insisted that Mr. Obama would recover and thrive, much as Mr. Clinton did.
That message was echoed in a memo that Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, distributed to his colleagues during a caucus meeting on Wednesday. In the memo, Mr. Israel, who is the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said coming clashes with Republicans over the budget and the debt would once again play to the strengths of Democratic candidates.
In an interview, Mr. Israel said that he was confident that the administration would be able to put Mr. Obama’s current troubles behind it. “The website will get fixed,” Mr. Israel said. “The issue with insurance policies has been addressed.”
Still, the president’s own words on Thursday betrayed a realization inside the White House that for all his travails over the last five years, this situation could be different.
Never before has Mr. Obama been as hard on himself and his staff in describing failures of both policy and politics. He repeatedly apologized and said that the criticism of the health care rollout was more justified than criticism of him in the past.
“There were times I thought we got slapped around unjustly,” the president said. “This one is deserved. It’s on us.”
But speaking to steelworkers later in the day in Cleveland, Mr. Obama was combative. “We are not going to gut this law,” he said, adding that to “those who say they are opposed to it and can’t offer a solution, we’ll push back.”