Healthcare.gov, Obama's cratering popularity, and the Democrats' big 2014 problem
Upgrades, patches, and fixes. If only President Obama could do the kind of quick repair job to his flailing administration that has been done over the last few weeks to the markedly less wobbly Healthcare.gov.
Yes, the site is indeed less wobbly than it was a month ago. But don't be fooled: Healthcare.gov still has problems. Anyone who thinks Team Obama is breathing a sigh of relief, who thinks the administration is out of the woods, needs to know this: The administration has quietly canceled a big December ad campaign to encourage Americans to visit the site, out of fear that a new wave of visitors would cause it to crash. Not exactly a sign of confidence.
After weeks of round-the-clock triage, the site is better. It is "now stable and operating at its intended capacity, with greatly improved performance," says Jeffrey D. Zients, the web czar leading the repair effort. The New York Times said Sunday that "the administration gave itself a passing grade."
A passing grade? A "C" is a passing grade. No one is pretending here, certainly not the president and his advisers, that their efforts over the past few weeks to patch up the site deserves much more than that. But don't take my word for it. Since Oct. 1, when Healthcare.gov first went live, the president's job approval rating has sunk to 40.1 percent, the lowest of his entire presidency.
Real Clear Politics averages the numbers in eight leading surveys. It's hard for Obama supporters to deny the truth in these trend lines.
Obama's approval rating 58 months into his presidency is running even with Lyndon Johnson, who was done in by Vietnam, and George W. Bush, who was sinking under the weight of the bungled Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. One saving grace for Obama: He's well ahead of Richard Nixon, who by this point in 1973 was sinking fast during Watergate. Of course, it's true that other two termers — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — bounced back from second-term disasters (Iran-Contra and Monicagate). But Reagan and Clinton were teflon presidents; things didn't stick to them for long. Obama thinks he can recover like they did, but aside from being a good public speaker, I think it's fair to say at this point that he simply does not share their political gifts.
The comparisons with LBJ and George W. Bush (the latter particularly drives this White House crazy) mean little to the president, who claims to pay no attention to public opinion surveys. Obama remains contemptuous of the short-term focus; he is always said to be thinking long-term. He thinks that 10, 20 years from now, long after he has left the scene, universal health insurance will be something that all Americans not only appreciate, but take for granted, as citizens of every other industrialized western nation do. The way he sees it, the nasty, bitter fight we're having now will one day be little more than a historical footnote — sort of like how Americans today know nothing of the vitriol flung Franklin Roosevelt's way during the fight over Social Security.
He might be right. But the next election is one year away, not 10 or 20, and the current trend suggests trouble. The possibility of the Senate flipping to Republican control is growing, and dissatisfaction with ObamaCare — fueled by perceptions of incompetence and weakness — is cited, along with the less-than-robust economic recovery — as a big reason.
If you think Obama has trouble dealing with one GOP-controlled chamber of Congress, just imagine how miserable things will get for him if the Senate goes Republican, too. A GOP win in 2014 would end any question about whether the president is a lame duck. Immigration, energy, climate change, court appointees — little of anything of substance would get through. And just think: Harry Reid, after years of GOP obstructionism, just changed the rules to make it harder for Republicans to filibuster — a move that could come back to haunt him if, a year from now, he finds himself in the minority party.
The challenge for the president is about so much more than whether a website is running well. It's about positioning his party for the future. It's about rebutting fresh Republican claims that an activist government can't solve big social problems.
As he heads into his final three years in office, those are things that need upgrades, patches, and fixes.