The nagging problems plaguing Healthcare.gov may be so pernicious that the Obama administration will be unable to have the site fully operational, as promised, by the end of the month, according to the Washington Post.
Such a setback would be yet another embarrassing blow to the administration, which has already had to delay several pieces of the law and ask for additional time to iron out kinks in the site's infrastructure. And with the president's approval rating in the tank, and with cracks forming in the once-unified congressional Democratic front, a failure to meet the looming deadline could prove politically disastrous for the president.
Soon after Healthcare.gov debuted last month, it essentially crashed under the weight of a high volume of would-be customers. And even as tech experts have rushed to shore up the shaky software powering the exchange marketplace, the site still falters when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people — roughly half its supposed capacity — use it at the same time, according to the Post, raising questions about whether it will need a major overhaul that would require even more time to fix.
With criticism mounting about the site's problems, Jeff Zients, the White House official tasked with overseeing the site's repairs, declared late last month, "By the end of November, HealthCare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users." Obama, too, took up the line, saying that "by the end of this month, we anticipate that it is going to be working the way it is supposed to."
At first, polls found voters willing to give the White House time to fix the errors in the massively complex software. Yet with the site still dysfunctional, and with fresh concerns about rising premiums and insurance companies dropping coverage for thousands of customers, Obama now has less leeway to ask for another extension.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found that, for the first time in his presidency, a majority of voters did not believe Obama was "honest or trustworthy." At the same time, Obama's approval rating slipped to an all-time low 39 percent.
Much of the fallout was tied to the disastrous ObamaCare debut and Obama's broken promise that people who liked their health insurance plans could keep them. Even Bill Clinton chided Obama for that contradiction, saying the president should tweak the law to make good on his vow.
His standing with the American people diminished, Obama will now have a harder time convincing them to give him yet another crack at fixing the exchange site. Voters are already more unwilling than ever to trust him, and for the president to once again admit he was wrong about Healthcare.gov's viability would be another shot to his credibility.
Also alarming for the president: Congressional Democrats — especially those facing tough re-election campaigns next year — are beginning to ratchet up their critiques of the administration's handling of the site's rollout. Should the site's problems persist, "a messy free-for-all could ensue where Democrats look to push a range of bills to shield themselves from the political backlash," wrote Politico's Manu Raju and Seung Min Kim.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), for one, has introduced the "Keeping the Affordable Care Act Promise Act," which would let Americans keep health plans that could otherwise be dumped. A number of other swing-state Dems have since signed on as co-sponsors.
Democratic senators are, understandably, nervous about standing too close to the White House as problems with Healthcare.gov have lingered. The party can only afford to lose five net Senate seats next year without losing their majority, and Republicans are already rolling out previews of the ObamaCare attack ads they'll unleash in 2014.
Obama could make this whole question moot if his tech team simply gets Healthcare.gov working on schedule (or, at least, on its current belated schedule.) And it's possible the administration could still meet that deadline. The Post story cited only one unnamed government official, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. And the administration has at least publicly stood by its claim that the site will work for the "vast majority" of users come December.
If the site's problems remain unfixed though, Obama will have to once again plead for more time to fix his signature domestic policy. Voters are already cooling on the president, a trend that would only continue if the administration again proves it's unable to meet its own deadlines.