The HealthCare.gov mess fits Obama’s leadership narrative

November 8, 2013

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has weathered some pretty big crises in the first year of his second term.

His administration has drawn outrage from foreign leaders over revelations that the United States was monitoring their communications. His initial strategy in Syria, at least before a non-military solution was decided upon, came under fire for its contradictory muddle. The IRS scandal and the attack in Benghazi have left some citizens fuming. And every day seems to bring new information about the seemingly ubiquitous reach of the NSA.

But the crisis that could very well do the most harm to the president's legacy is the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. This is not, however, merely because it's known as his signature piece of legislation. And it is not just because he defended it so strongly in the shutdown and debt ceiling battles with Republicans, or because Democrats now "own" health care issues and all the ensuing problems.

No, this crisis might most hurt his legacy because the rollout of HealthCare.gov reinforced preexisting ideas—fair or unfair—of Obama's leadership faults in a way that no other crisis has yet done. The knock against the president has long been that he is aloof, insular and not interested in the nitty-gritty details of governing. His critics have questioned his lack of executive experience so much that the critique has practically become a cliche.

The health care rollout plays right into that bad rap. Even if the president didn't directly make many of the decisions, the postmortem analyses make it clear that poor management was a big contributor to the mess. A New York Times story questioned the decision to assign the role of "project quarterback" to the Medicare and Medicaid agency rather than to a lead contractor. A Wall Street Journal analysis of how aides debated the "if you like your insurance, you can keep it" promise raises questions about the decisions regarding messaging. And in the Post's recent investigation, Obama is reported to have chosen who would run the effort despite warnings from outside advisers to the contrary. Other management details that were reported, such as there being no single full-time administrator within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid whose full-time job was to manage the project, are also far from flattering.

Reality, of course, is usually more nuanced than any stereotype. The administration was dealing with a toxic political environment. The complexity of this project has no precedent. And obviously, many of the mistakes were not explicitly the president's doing. In the Post's postmortem, Obama is not depicted as disengaged: He is said to have turned his attention to the health care law and the Web site in meeting after meeting.

But that may not matter in the end. When a scandal or a crisis can be woven neatly into a narrative that's already been written about a leader, it gets far more attention and has far more staying power than one that seems to contradict what we think we know about him or her. As a result, likely the only way to reach a happy ending is to offer a story line that's proof to the contrary. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, that would mean efficient management that provides a fast fix, a smooth-running Web site and a policy that ultimately actually works.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Kathleen Sebelius and the late apology

Negotiation experts on how to win the shutdown

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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