Politico Magazine in December published an opinion piece suggesting mismanagement by the Obama administration in the run-up to the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov. Titled “When Barry Met Kathy. Almost never, it turns out,” the story alleged scant one-on-one coordination between President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Written by Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute (GAI) and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the story was based on a GAI analysis of the president’s public schedule and Politico’s presidential calendar.
Bouncing off of the paltry mentions of direct Obama-Sebelius meetings on those databases, Schweizer concluded, “[I]f Obama was not meeting regularly one-on-one with his HHS secretary to help navigate his signature legislative achievement safely into harbor, it’s hard to discern exactly what the president knew and when he knew it.” The URL for the story reads, “the-zero-meeting-president.”
The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) criticized Schweizer’s findings, insisting that they didn’t accurately portray the realities of executive branch management. Sebelius had attended “dozens” of meetings with the president “in the last year alone,” said HHS. Towson University Professor Martha Joynt Kumar told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time that the Politico Magazine’s methodology bore frailties: “Presidents have never released the full accounting of what a president was going to be doing that day,” Kumar says. “There are a lot of meetings that wouldn’t appear.”
In brushing back the pushback, Schweizer appended a note to the bottom of his Politico Magazine story, arguing, in part, “In the name of transparency, Americans deserve to know how much time President Obama personally spent over three-and-a-half years leading, managing and working alongside Secretary Sebelius on his signature achievement.”
The Hill heeded his call. In an investigative piece published yesterday, the Capitol Hill publication pushed out a headline that is somewhat incompatible with that of Politico Magazine: “Before O-Care debacle, Sebelius made many trips to White House.” The story alleges that “Sebelius met with or attended calls and events with Obama at least 18 times between Oct. 27, 2012, and Oct. 6, 2013, including at least seven instances in which the two were scheduled to discuss the new healthcare law.”
Just how did The Hill reach these conclusions? Via 750-plus pages of Sebelius’s draft schedules obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition to her scheduled meetings at the White House, Sebelius chatted with media figures, including an August 2013 coffee with then-Washington Postie Ezra Klein and phone chats with Atul Gawande, who has written extensively on health care for the New Yorker.
When asked about the conflict between Politico Magazine and The Hill, HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters referred the Erik Wemple Blog to the department’s previous position on this matter — about how the secretary “has been to the White House countless times since becoming Secretary, including dozens of meetings with the President in the last year alone.” That said, the draft schedules for Sebelius may have undergone last-minute changes depending upon circumstances. Combined with The Hill’s reporting from the draft schedules, however, the HHS position spells peril for Politico Magazine’s conclusions.
Politico Magazine hasn’t yet responded to the Erik Wemple Blog’s request for comment on its story’s durability.
The fun part of The Hill v. Politico Magazine on Obama-Sebelius is how both outlets spin the data. In his Politico Magazine piece, Schweizer uses (shaky) evidence of scant meetings to bash President Obama for not having coordinated enough with his top health-care official. In their piece for The Hill, Jonathan Easley and Kevin Bogardus use evidence of many meetings to raise questions about how President Obama could possibly have been uninformed about the impending disaster of Healthcare.gov: “The schedules suggest Sebelius was an active White House presence in the months leading up to the botched rollout, and raise new questions about why Obama wouldn’t have known about the problems that were exposed on Oct. 1,” notes The Hill.
So, for President Obama: Damned if he didn’t meet with Sebelius, damned if he did meet with Sebelius. Washington!
UPDATE 4:10: Kumar chimes in with these thoughts on the Hill-Politico gap:
I am not sure why someone would rely on a president’s – any president’s – public schedule as the authoritative source on what meetings a chief executive has. There is only one solid source on presidential meetings and that is the President’s Daily Diary, a compilation of the movements of a president during his days in office. The information for the diary is gathered by the Presidential Diarist who does so for the record of a president’s time in office. It is based on Secret Service and internal reports of when the president came into the West Wing, who he met with, what rooms he was in, and sometimes the topics of the meetings. The Daily Diary is the only document that is going to give you the information of who a president meets with. The public schedule is just that: what the White House wants the public to know about his day. It most often deals with public events and meetings, not internal ones. The public schedule has never been meant to cover all of what a president does or even serve as a reflection of just what his day is. For example, presidents often drop by when a senior staff member is meeting with someone of interest to the president and his administration. That may not have even been on his internal schedule. A study of the public schedule tells us little about who a president – any president – meets with nor does it say what the topics of discussion are. For that information, only the President’s Daily Diary can give us a window on who he met with, called on the phone, or who called him. That diary, however, only comes out twelve years after the president leaves office.
The Hill article is based on solid information coming out of a Freedom of Information Act suit. The information can tell us when Secretary Sebelius went to the White House, but that is not the same as saying when she met with President Obama nor does it say what they said to one another. For that one must speculate. Again, the President’s Daily Diary can give us a better idea of when the Secretary and the President were together, but even it cannot tell us what it was she said to him and what he told her. After all, it is possible that she too did not have a sense of how the roll out was going to go down because there were so many moving parts to it. If the administration had had in place an executive officer responsible for health care, then perhaps they would have had a more accurate portrait of what the linkages were between the parts and how they were working or not working.