December 2, 2013

Today appears to be the day for demanding changes in the White House staff — the most significant piece is in the Hill, with unnamed former White House staffers complaining, but National Journal’s Ron Fournier tosses in the suggestion that Barack Obama should fire people and hire David Gergen.

Two things about this. One is that, to the extent that the White House, and in particular the president, have focused more on legislating than on implementating, it could be a significant problem. It’s very difficult to get hard information about things like this while a president is still in office; even in this era of insider-informed books, it’s just hard to know who is leaking and for what reasons. But if it’s true that Obama and his White House have neglected the executive branch, then it’s a real problem, and one that presumably could be improved.

The other, however, is that both articles seem far more focused on spin than on substance. The truth, however, is pretty much the exact opposite. The bulk of the problem with “keep your plan” isn’t that the president made a promise and didn’t keep it (and certainly not that the second-term White House failed to spin it effectively after the first-term White House made the promise); it’s that HealthCare.gov wasn’t working when people received cancellation messages.

Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that a slow White House reaction to the Oct. 1 rollout will turn out, down the road, to be very important. What’s more important will have been the three-year process that arrived at Oct. 1 (most of which was put in place by the first-term White House), and the success or failure after mid-October to resolve the problems.

Getting the program up and running successfully is what will matter in the long run, not messaging and spin about it. Even for short-term approval of the president and support for Democrats (both of which are important for the 2014 midterms, among other things), substance is going to triumph over spin.

I really wouldn’t be surprised at all if it turns out that Barack Obama didn’t focus enough on executive-branch departments and agencies; I’d strongly recommend that future presidents make sure that they have someone close to the president who understands the importance of that part of the job. But at least since mid-October, the evidence seems to be that Obama and the White House have learned that lesson, at least when it comes to health care. Additional personnel changes are more likely to make things worse at this point than to help.