All Sham, No Wow

The lady on the left passed out before the speech was done. Associated Press

The lady on the left passed out before the speech was done.      Associated Press

Obama Delivers an Infomercial when an Accounting is Due

James Taranto writes: “The Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” President Obama said at the Rose Garden today. “It’s much more.” It’s like a chamois, it’s like a towel, it’s like a sponge.

Another way of putting it is that ObamaCare isn’t just a technical failure. And it isn’t just an economically unsustainable scheme. Now it’s a rhetorical disaster too. Even by the standards of Obama speeches it was terrible. It was so bad, it was the ObamaCare website of political oratory.

Fine, blame us. After all, we called for an Obama speech. But remember that what we called for–it was right there in the subheadline–was an accounting. What he gave us was an infomercial.

Much of the speech was devoted to an enumeration of various ObamaCare provisions that are thought to appeal to Obama voters and that apply to insurance plans outside the failing exchanges–the mandate that parents’ insurance cover “children” in their mid-20s, the “free” birth control and mammograms and so forth. This was delivered with Obama’s trademark condescension: “You may not know it, but you’re already benefiting from these provisions in the law. . . . You may not have noticed them, but you’ve got them and they’re not going anywhere and they’re not dependent on a website.”

Believe it or not, that was as good as it got. Obama actually tried to make a distinction between ObamaCare and what he variously called its “product” and its “essence”:

So the fact is, the product of the Affordable Care Act for people without health insurance is quality health insurance that’s affordable. And that product is working. It’s really good. And it turns out there’s a massive demand for it. So far, the national website,, has been visited nearly 20 million times. . . .

The point is the essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine. In some cases, actually, it’s exceeding expectations.

This is nonsensical for multiple reasons. One is a point the president made himself, in the course of trying to reassure listeners there’s plenty of time to sign up: “Keep in mind the insurance doesn’t start until Jan. 1.” It’s Vaporcare!

Perhaps a physical product can be said to be “working” 10 weeks before delivery if it is functional in the corporate lab. But insurance–which ObamaCare redefines as a prepaid benefit plan–is a financial instrument. In order for it to “work,” the marketplace as a whole has to function so that policyholders are able to collect the promised benefits. Technical functionality is a necessary condition for the “product” to “work.”

But not a sufficient one. Obama boasted: “Every day people who were stuck with sky-high premiums because of pre-existing conditions are getting affordable insurance for the first time, or finding . . . that they’re saving a lot of money. Every day women are finally buying coverage that doesn’t charge them higher premiums than men for the same care.”

If Obama is accurately describing the typical ObamaCare enrollee, then the program’s economic death spiral is under way. ObamaCare can work only if people without pre-existing conditions prove willing to pay jacked-up premiums and, since he mentioned it, if men are willing to pick up the tab for those lowered (or less steeply raised) premiums for women.

As to the technical failures, Obama gave no reason to think they will soon be solved. “I called on the contractor to get its A-team here and give us 150%,” Saturday’s The Wall Street Journal quoted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as saying in an interview. Obama’s speech was equally platitudinous. He said “we’re well into a tech surge to fix the problem,” cleverly appropriating a Bush administration slogan that referred to–ulp!–Iraq.

At least the Iraq surge is generally understood to have been a success. Over the weekend an anonymous HHS blog post alluded to an even greater wartime failure: “Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government.” Alas, Robert McNamara is still dead.

It’s telling, too, that Obama–even though he said “there’s no excuse for the problems”–offered as an excuse that the site was swamped by overwhelming demand. That’s the “Good Glitches” argument, offered Oct. 1 by former Enron adviser Paul Krugman. Is the president no more knowledgeable about ObamaCare’s failures today than Krugman was 20 days ago? Or is he concealing what he knows to forestall the political consequences of an honest accounting? It’s hard to know which of these possibilities indicates a greater calamity.

Politico report last week suggests concealment was the prelaunch modus operandi:

Facing such intense opposition from congressional Republicans, the administration was in a bunker mentality as it built the enrollment system, one former administration official said. Officials feared that if they called on outsiders to help with the technical details of how to run a commerce website, those companies could be subpoenaed by Hill Republicans, the former aide said. So the task fell to trusted campaign tech experts.

The Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano has a telling interview with Michael Slaby, who served as the 2012 campaign’s “chief innovation and integration officer”:

What if the real lesson of is that the U.S. government, unlike Obama’s campaign team, is set up to make boneheaded websites no matter how hard it tries?

That, in effect, is what Slaby tells me when I call him and ask him to respond to the folks who have been contrasting the campaign’s successes with the White House’s failures. “I think a lot of the challenge here with the ‘they ran such a tech-savvy campaign, why are the [sic] having problems building a website?’ crowd is that this isn’t apples and oranges,” he says. “It’s more like apples and firetrucks.”

I ask Slaby to elaborate.

“The campaign was working in an environment that was vastly more unconstrained in terms of what we could do, what technologies we could use, how we could build, how we hired people, how we procured outside help,” he explains. “All of those variables would be wildly in favor of the campaign. They’re all really stacked against the White House. We have set a lot of the technical projects in government up to fail by being a little irrational.”

Which does not exactly bolster one’s confidence in the government’s ability to administer a complicated financial marketplace either.

For a bellwether of ObamaCare’s disastrousness, let’s consider Slate’s Matthew Yglesias. Back in July he wrote a brief post because he “wanted to once again take the opportunity to lay down a marker and say once again that Obamacare implementation is going to be a huge political success”:

You have to understand that the media, for non-ideological reasons, is just massively biased toward negativity about this kind of thing. . . . You add in the fact that Republicans have a vested interest in making hay about problems plus the fact that liberals have never been all that enthusiastic about the Affordable Care Act’s reliance on private insurers, and a lot of negative coverage is baked into the cake. But fundamentally a lot of this criticism comes in the form of comparing the reality of the ACA to an abstract idealized system rather than comparing it to the status quo.

That “status quo” has now become the status quo ante, and it was the subject of perhaps Obama’s most absurd assertion today:

Part of the challenge here is, is that a lot of people may not remember what it’s like to buy insurance the traditional way. The way we’ve set it up, there are no more absurdly long application forms. There’s no medical history questionnaire that goes on for pages and pages. There’s no more getting denied because you’ve had a pre-existing condition.

Apparently there’s been a sudden outbreak of Alzheimer’s since ObamaCare took effect. Good thing insurance companies can no longer charge people for pre-existing conditions.

Anyway, Yglesias has a post today titled “’s Problems Don’t Discredit Liberalism.” That may be an arguable assertion–it seems to us a bit early to draw such a conclusion either way–but Yglesias’s defensiveness is telling, and is quite a change from his cheerleading over the summer.

Obama’s audience this morning consisted in part of purported ObamaCare beneficiaries, but the Washington Examiner’s Byron York looked at their stories and found “it’s clear the administration was stretching to present people who, beyond supporting Obamacare, have actually gained from it in any tangible way”:

For example, a Pennsylvania man named Malik Hassan was in the group, and this is the White House description of his situation, in full: “Malik Hassan works at a restaurant in Philadelphia. Hassan, who does not receive coverage through his employer, is looking forward to enrolling for health coverage this fall. He recently used to process his application and is waiting for the options for potential plans in Philadelphia.” . . .

Then there is Nathaniel Hojnacki, who recently finished his schooling. Here is the White House description of his situation, again in full: “Nathaniel Hojnacki recently received his Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and is in an employment situation without benefits. Hojnacki recognizes the importance of coverage and is planning to enroll after he explores his coverage options on the DC exchange.” . . .

Then there is LaJuanna Russell, of Virginia. Here is the White House description of her situation, in its entirety: “LaJuanna Russell is the owner of Business Management Associates, a consulting company in Alexandria, Virginia. Russell says she is proud to offer her employees health insurance but that it can be difficult for a small business. Russell believes that the ACA provides stability for her and her employees and is exploring what new coverage options will be available to her company under the exchanges.”

Then there is another small business owner, Zohre Abolfazli of Tennessee. Here is the White House description of her situation, in its entirety: “Zohre Abolfazli has owned a small business outside of Nashville, Tennessee for almost twenty-five years. Even though she has been able to maintain her health insurance over the years, it has been a challenge to find affordable, comprehensive health insurance in the individual market place. Last night, Abolfazli was able to register through and now plans to comparison shop for the best plan that meets her budget and needs.”

Of the 13 White House success stories, only 2 actually seem to have bought policies through the exchanges. A few others have benefited from those other ObamaCare provisions that, according to the president, “you may not have noticed.” But you’d think the White House would be able to come up with a baker’s dozen people who’ve actually benefited in some way. And again, none of the success stories involve people who’ve willingly signed up to pay higher premiums–those without whom ObamaCare’s economics cannot work.

Obama ended his speech on a characteristically antagonistic note, denouncing Republicans and saying: “It’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure.” As one who has indeed been rooting for failure, we must say we agree. It’s time for folks–above all the “folk” who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–to acknowledgeits failure.

One final rhetorical note: Obama seems to have retired the word “glitches” in favor of a synonym: “We’re working out the kinks in the system,” he said this morning, adding later: “Once the kinks in the website have been ironed out, it will be even smoother and even easier.”

Which brings us to another war allusion, this one arrived at through free association and thus certainly unintentional. The Kinks had an early song, and later a best-of album, titled “Waterloo Sunset.” In 2009 then-Sen. Jim DeMint said of the not-yet-enacted ObamaCare effort: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo.” Maybe even if they’re not.

One Comment on “All Sham, No Wow”

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