October 8, 2013
Obama takes questions on the shutdown. (Reuters)
Obama takes questions on the shutdown. (Reuters)

President Obama today held a press conference on the government shutdown and the debt limit, as well as the government shutdown and the debt limit. He also discussed the government shutdown and the debt limit, before taking a number of questions on those topics.

His statement, which was really, really long, managed to squeeze in a momentary reference to his signature policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act:

The way we got to this point was one thing and one thing only, and that was Republican obsession with dismantling the Affordable Care Act and denying health care to millions of people. That law, ironically, is moving forward.

So most Americans, Democrats and Republicans, agree that health care should not have anything to do with keeping our government open or paying our bills on time, which is why I will sit down and work with anyone of any party, not only to talk about the budget; I’ll talk about ways to improve the health care system.

No surprise whatsoever that President Obama didn’t address the bad publicity and bad substance of the past week in the healthcare realm. A glitchy rollout of registration for the Obamacare exchanges frustrated uninsured Americans looking to get themselves some cheaper insurance plans. Crashed websites have been a recurring theme, as has been the absence of firm registration numbers. The president’s full-time critics, as well as neutral parties, have jumped on him over these problems.

Yet he managed to duck the matter at the press conference today, thanks in large part to a press corps with one big issue on its mind: the funding fight. The latest Post transcript shows that the vast majority of questions concerned the debt ceiling, the shutdown or both, while there were exactly zero questions about Obamacare. A Twitter debate blew up over the scarcity of inquiries on the healthcare embarrassments:

 

 

 

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein asked the fourth question at the press conference: “With Speaker Boehner so far unwilling to hold a vote on a clean CR, what assurances can you give to those affected by a shutdown who are concerned about an even longer impasse? And how worried are you personally that your preferred solution to this clean CR and sequestration levels may do harm to the nation’s economy and your second-term agenda?” Stein had this to say about pressing the president on the healthcare problems: “The rollout of the health care website and its obvious shortcomings was on the list of questions I was thinking of asking, actually. But I personally have been covering the effects of sequestration and, now, the government shut down on communities outside of the Beltway. So I wanted to see what type of assurances the president had for those folks if there continues to be a budget impasse. Outside of that, I don’t have much to say. Though I would note that the president was asked about the ACA rollout in his AP interview.”

True enough. It was actually the first question that the Associated Press’s Julie Pace posed to the president:

Q: There is a lot that I want to ask you about the government shutdown and foreign policy, but I wanted to start with health care. The signature element of your health care law went online this week, and the interest seems to have really exceeded expectations, but there were some serious glitches with the online systems. And our reporting shows that the number of people who actually managed to sign up for insurance in the states using the federal system was in the single digits. How many people have actually signed up for insurance this week?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t have the numbers yet. What we know is that, as you indicated, the interest way exceeded expectations and that’s the good news. It shows that people really need and want affordable health care. And the product is a really good one. It turns out that choice and competition work. So what’s happened is you’ve got private insurers who have bid to get into this system to offer affordable health care at significantly lower prices than anybody could buy in the individual market, because basically they’re now part of a big group.

And it is true that what’s happened is the website got overwhelmed by the volume. And folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times, but we are confident that over the course of the six months — because it’s important to remember people have six months to sign up — that we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people have.

Pace also asked Obama if he had a message for those who gave up in “frustration,” and the president encouraged folks to keep trying.

So the president has faced down a couple of pointed questions on the very matter that critics wanted to see addressed at the press conference today. Does that excuse the White House press corps’ failure to return to the topic? Does the rightful obsession with the shutdown/debt limit excuse it?

Absolutely not. Scroll back to that AP interview. When asked straight-up how many people had signed up for insurance, the president said that he didn’t yet have the numbers. Huh? Isn’t that evasion blood in the water for an aggressive White House reporter? The transcript of the press conference shows that the president went on at great lengths about the politics of the shutdown, the debt limit — essentially, why he’s right and the Republicans are wrong. And indeed, he made a lot of sense on these fronts.

What he was clearly less excited about was the nitty-gritty of the healthcare rollout. And the job of any White House correspondent is to ask the president about the stuff he doesn’t want to talk about.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.