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Margaret Carlson: Rollout was supposed to be Obamacare’s moment of truth

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed. Press 1 if failure is not an option.

President Obama pressed the wrong button. He got the Affordable Care Act passed and then rested on his laurels. How sad to see our tech-savvy commander in chief, who blew billions on a website that is worse than any state’s DMV, direct frustrated consumers to a 1-800 number, like an infomercial host on late-night cable.

His speech in the White House Rose Garden this week was supposed to stop the unhelpful weeks of hemming and hawing by his staff over the HealthCare.gov debacle.

They had made light of the catastrophe, saying they were “scrubbing the site” of “glitches,” which is like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. Not being able to access the website was “a good problem to have,” and one that proved its popularity. They like it, Mr. President, they really like it.

“Nobody’s madder than me,” Obama claimed. We don’t need him to get mad; we need him to fix it. Leave the anger to the American public to whom he has promised to deliver health care for three years and who are now drowning in error messages, even in the middle of the night, when traffic is supposedly light.

He reverted to singing his own praises in getting the health care law passed at all. “We did not wage this long and contentious battle just around a website,” Obama said. “That’s not what this was about.”

But this really is about a website, and it’s shocking the president doesn’t realize that. Bringing everyone into the risk pool is the essence of the ACA, the basic principle that makes insurance work and keeps companies from cherry-picking healthy customers and leaving the sick to fend for themselves.

The rollout of Obamacare had to be absolutely perfect. Obama needed to treat it like a 21st-century Manhattan Project, full of 20-something geeks pulling all-nighters and managed by geniuses from Apple and Google who can fill in that blind spot between the techies and end users. Instead, he took the pedestrian route and spent $400 billion on a Canadian company that our good neighbors to the north once fired for incompetence.

That brings us to those determined to stop Obamacare and, by extension, Obama himself (that’s why they call it Obamacare). They’re happy to watch the president making excuses. They’re gloating now, just a few days after the president did his own gloating over Republican incompetence during the government shutdown.

The website failure gives credence to those who warn that government can’t be trusted to get big things right, and that the market, not bureaucrats, should fix health care. It’s not just the crazies who doubt government now. According to the Pew Research Center, the competence of officialdom is on shaky ground, with only 19 percent of Americans saying they trust in government “just about always” or “most of the time.”

There are many things Obama can’t control – the Middle East, the World Series, Sen. Ted Cruz – but he can control practical matters. We set him up as royalty, despite fighting the British to have a democracy. The other two branches of government still have to worry about the basement flooding and the lawn growing weedy, but the Leader of the Free World has to floss and not much else. He lives in a palace. He has an Air Force to fly him around. We want our presidents to be superheroes who can send a man to the moon and Osama bin Laden to his grave.

This was supposed to have been Obamacare’s moment of truth, when the president disproved bitter Republicans and showed that government could do something great. According to Bloomberg News, HealthCare.gov went live without a dry run, and just last week the computer code – 500 million lines of which might have to be reconfigured – contained placeholder language that is used in preliminary drafts. Yet contractors have been paid as if they performed.

Republicans may yet get their delay, not because they shut down the government, but because the president didn’t use his power to make his hard-fought legislation work. After this, is there anything Obama wants government to do that can sail through Congress? Press 2 if you think Obama is going to win the fight to reinstate funds for food stamps cut from the farm bill. Press 3 if you believe he’s going to get immigration reform. Press 4 if you are madder than he is.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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