You can't afford to screw up your signature accomplishment. And yet that's what the Obama administration seems to have done with the botched launch of HealthCare.gov. After all of the overheated debates, the midnight votes and Supreme Court skirmishes, the long-anticipated October 1 ObamaCare debut has been a rolling disaster.
This is not partisan spin but a matter of consensus, from the president's supporters to his most obsessive critics. The problem lies in a website that seems more bricks and mortar than terabytes: slow-moving, complicated and badly coded. This technological leviathan was developed in large part by a Canadian government contracting firm called CGI.
At a cumulative cost of roughly $300 million to the taxpayer, excuses ring hollow. But the problems seem to have stemmed from a combination of sclerotic procurement rules and civil service regulations that hamstrung the development process. The president admitted his administration's failure in a Rose Garden press conference on Monday. "Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn't working as well as it should," he said.
Except perhaps someone trying finally to get insurance on the exchanges with a pre-existing condition, such as cancer, after wading through screen after screen and ultimately ending up nowhere. Welcome to liberal limbo - well-intentioned bureaucracy without end. In the search for someone to blame, Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, and former governor of Kansas, is now receiving calls for her professional head.
Granted, this chorus was initially instigated by the Republican National Committee in an attempt to distract attention from its own party's train wreck - the ideological tantrum that led to the two-week government shutdown. But after its bluff was called amid plummeting poll numbers, attention turned to the damage the federal ObamaCare website was already doing to itself. Lesson: let your political opponents hang themselves. It now seems the White House was not told how far behind schedule and suboptimal the web site was until D-Day loomed.
Hope is not in fact a strategy. Indeed, the website appears not to have received critical tests until just weeks before launch and even then at levels insufficient to deal with the inevitable online onslaught. As too often happens, the IT smokescreen obscured accountability behind a veil of industry jargon until it was too late. The costs of this fiasco can be counted in both policy and politics. Yes, the administration's public face-plant undercuts the president's signature achievement, at least the crucial point of first impression.
But the deeper cost may come from President Obama's stated legacy: a desire to roll back Reaganism by demonstrating that progressive government can work efficiently for the good of the people. Instead it seems evident that this bureaucratic morass might actually help prove a philosophical point the centre-Right has been making for decades: namely, that government doesn't do things as well as, or as efficiently as, the private sector. In addition, it compounds one of the central criticisms of this administration, namely that President Obama is a far more effective at campaigning than governing. When narrative meets uncomfortable fact you have the makings of a long-lasting political problem.
And so the administration announced it would summon the best and the brightest to solve the problems of HealthCare.gov in the equivalent of a five-month sprint. The appointed Winston Wolf of the administration is Jeffrey Zients, the one-time acting head of the Office of Management and Budget and former entrepreneur, described as "both hard-charging but nice."
But with the clock ticking, "hard-charging but nice" might not be enough. Solving this problem requires more than tinkering around the edges of computer code. Because it cuts to the heart of this president's legacy, the bright, young tech minds who helped make his campaigns such a success but have since moved on to high-priced consulting gigs will need to rally around this White House effort.
There is still time to fix HealthCare.gov, but there are few times in life when you get a second chance to make a first impression. President Obama sank so much political capital into enacting this once-Republican-backed health care reform plan that practical problems of this magnitude threaten to undercut his legacy. Campaigning, after all, is just a prelude to governing. Execution is all.