THE PRESIDENCY

Obama and the bubble-wrapped presidency

 
 
MILBANK
MILBANK

danamilbank@washpost.gov

Near the end of his new book, Days of Fire, my friend and former colleague Peter Baker recounts a moment in the White House Situation Room in 2008 when President George W. Bush was uncharacteristically reflective.

“The president looked at (Defense Secretary) Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, who had succeeded Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and harked back to the critical days in 2003 before he launched the war that had become so problematic. ‘You know,’ he recalled, ‘when I made the decision on Iraq, I went around the room to everybody at that table, every principal. “You in? Any doubts?” Nothing from anybody.’ ”

As President Obama sifts through the wreckage of his healthcare rollout, let’s hope he’s having similar reflections about why he didn’t know the launch of his presidency’s signature policy would be so ugly.

In one account of what even administration officials acknowledge is a debacle, The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama’s policy advisers were aware long ago that the president’s promise that “if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it” wouldn’t hold up. “White House policy advisers objected to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s ‘keep your plan’ promise,” the Journal reported, citing a former senior administration official. “They were overruled by political aides, the former official said. The White House said it was unaware of the objections.”

Obama, to borrow Bush’s phrase, heard “nothing from anybody.”

No, the Obamacare pratfall is not Obama’s Iraq: The magnitude is entirely different, and the problems — website malfunctions and a wave of policy cancellations — are fixable. But the decision-making is disturbingly similar: In both cases, insular administrations, staffed by loyalists and obsessed with secrecy, participated in group-think and let the president hear only what they thought he wanted to hear.

In a damning account of the Obamacare implementation, my Washington Post colleagues Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin described how Obama rejected pleas from outside experts and even some of his own advisers to bring in people with the expertise to handle the mammoth task; he instead left the project in the care of in-house loyalists. “Three and a half years later, such insularity — in that decision and others that would follow — has emerged as a central factor in the disastrous rollout,” Goldstein and Eilperin reported.

Their report is based in part on a prescient memo sent to the White House in May 2010 by Harvard professor David Cutler, an outside adviser on health care reform. “I am concerned that the personnel and processes you have in place are not up to the task, and that health reform will be unsuccessful as a result,” he wrote. “My general view is that the early implementation efforts are far short of what it will take to implement reform successfully . . . I do not believe the relevant members of the administration understand the president’s vision or have the capability to carry it out.”

Cutler identified many of the problems that would later plague the Obamacare rollout: The perception of secrecy, the lack of qualified personnel and the likelihood that “if you cannot find a way to work with hesitant states and insurers, reform will blow up.”

Instead, Obama followed a different governing philosophy: Dance with the one that brung ya. He figured that those who helped him enact the healthcare law should be the ones to implement it.

I’ve written frequently about Obama’s insularity. Like his predecessor, he has rewarded loyalty and surrounded himself with like-minded advisers disinclined to dissent. This, combined with a Bush-like fetish for secrecy, has left the president in a bubble, struggling to find support in Congress or among the public.

That’s what makes the Iraq comparison resonate, even without Obama’s call for a technology “surge” to HealthCare.gov inviting the comparison. Although the policies are entirely different, both were unforced errors aggravated by a president’s insularity. Both men failed to hear warnings (about the intelligence and the military plan, in Bush’s case; about problems with the exchanges and the website, in Obama’s), overstated their cases (Bush’s hysteria about Iraq’s nuclear program; Obama’s keep-your-plan promise) and used the other side’s partisanship as an excuse to withhold information.

One of those who has made the Iraq comparison, National Journal’s Ron Fournier, argues that Obama “needs to do some soul-searching. What did I miss, and why? What was kept from me, and why?

Bush didn’t ask those questions until his presidency was nearly over. Obama still has some time to cure the ills of insularity.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  • AUTISM

    Learning alongside my daughter, Bela

    My daughter, Bela, who has autism, doesn’t go anywhere without a pair of socks, which is odd because she never wears socks. Rather she carries them around as if they were dolls.

  •  
Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on Thursday.

    GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

    His words dazzled the world

    Gabriel García Márquez has left us. His was also a death foretold, but no less shocking, because we resist saying farewell to our heroes. And García Márquez, the immense writer, was a superhero of literature.

  • EARLY LEARNING

    The imperative is to educate our children

    When the two of us were graduated from high school, nobody seemed to be worrying about China or Brazil or India competing with us as an economy or in education. We took for granted that we were the best in the world in education and the economy and had no reason to believe that would ever change. Everyone seemed to be able to get a job — and to do so with not much more than the bare basics of education.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category