In explaining the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, President Obama told MSNBC host Chris Matthews he had discovered that “we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.”
An interesting discovery to make after having consigned the vast universe of American medicine, one-sixth of the U.S. economy, to the tender mercies of the agency bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service.
Most people become aware of the hopeless inefficiency of sclerotic government by, oh, age 17 at the department of motor vehicles. Obama’s late discovery is especially remarkable considering that he built his entire political philosophy on the rock of Big Government.
This blinding revelation of the ponderous incompetence of bureaucratic government came just a few weeks after Obama confessed that “what we’re also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy.” Another lightbulb goes off, this one three years after passing a law designed to force millions of Americans to shop for new health plans via the maze of untried, untested, insecure, unreliable online “exchanges.”
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Obama is not just late to discover the most elementary workings of government. With alarming regularity, he professes obliviousness to the workings of his own government. He claims, for example, to have known nothing about the IRS targeting scandal, the Associated Press phone records scandal, the National Security Agency tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And he had not a clue that the centerpiece of his signature legislative achievement – the Obamacare “exchange” – would fail catastrophically upon launch.
Hence the odd spectacle of a president expressing surprise and disappointment in the federal government – as if he’s not the one running it. Hence the repeated no-one-is-more-upset-than-me posture upon deploring the nonfunctioning website, the IRS outrage, the AP intrusions and any number of scandals from which Obama tries to create safe distance by posing as an observer.
The paradox of this presidency is that this most passive bystander president is at the same time the most ideologically ambitious in decades. The sweep and scope of his health care legislation alone are unprecedented. He’s spent billions of tax money attempting to create, by fiat and ex nihilo, a new green economy. His (failed) cap-and-trade bill would have given him regulatory control of the energy economy. He wants universal preschool and has just announced his unwavering commitment to slaying the dragon of economic inequality, which, like the poor, has always been with us.
Obama’s discovery that government bureaucracies don’t do things very well creates a breathtaking disconnect between his transformative ambitions and his detachment from the job itself. How does his Olympian vision coexist with the lassitude of his actual governance, a passivity that verges on absenteeism?
What bridges that gap is rhetoric. Barack Obama is a master rhetorician. It’s allowed him to move crowds, rise inexorably and twice win the most glittering prize of all.
That’s why his reaction to the Obamacare website’s crash on takeoff is so telling. His remedy? A cross-country campaign-style speaking tour.
Managing, governing, negotiating, cajoling, crafting legislation, forging compromise. For these – this stuff of governance – Obama has shown little aptitude and even less interest.
“I don’t write code,” said Obama in reaction to the website crash. Nor is he expected to. He is, however, expected to run an administration that can.