President Obama salutes outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Obama salutes outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Kathleen Sebelius is a rarity in Washington: a powerhouse with a down-to-earth sense of humor that made her as approachable as she was powerful. And after five tough years (and particularly the past six months) as secretary of health and human services, the former governor of Kansas is stepping down. The Rose Garden send-off today by President Obama and Vice President Biden and the standing ovations from her colleagues were appropriate for someone who met the ultimate goal.

Yes, the Oct. 1 rollout of HealthCare.gov was an unmitigated disaster. Its initial failure undermined faith in the Affordable Care Act, its goals and Obama himself. As The Post’s Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin reported last November, it was also a violation of his mantra during staff meetings after passage of the ACA. “All of that is well and good, but if the Web site doesn’t work,” Obama said, “nothing else matters.” And he was proved right.

I knew from my reporting and a couple of conversations with Sebelius that she and the administration were all about making sure that everything would work the way it was supposed to on Oct. 1. That nothing worked well for weeks no doubt was a crushing personal blow to Sebelius, not to mention Obama. The toll it took on Sebelius, and her standing with Obama and within the administration, cannot be underestimated.

But if you only focus on that, you’re missing a more complete picture of Sebelius’s tenure at HHS. Crisis greeted her when she walked through the door in April 2009. The H1N1 pandemic was surging across the globe, and vaccines for this new strain of swine flu didn’t exist. Sebelius shepherded the process of expediting production and distribution of a vaccine. Full disclosure: I got a flu shot at HHS as Sebelius watched, to make good on a pledge to get one after I publicly said I wouldn’t.

While that was happening, Sebelius was helping to design what would become known and derided as Obamacare. She was there for the lunacy of “death panels” and “You lie!” She was there when the ACA passed Congress without a single Republican vote and when it survived a constitutional challenge. She was there for countless congressional hearings on the health-care law, useless votes to repeal it, creepy Uncle Sam and other tactics meant to scare people from signing up for health care. The 7.5 million who signed up despite all that demonstrate the need and the success of the administration in coming back from a self-made disaster.

“There are seven and a half million people across the country that have the security of health insurance, most of them for the very first time, and that’s because of the woman standing next to me here today,” the president said in a farewell ceremony as triumphant as the one held more than a week ago to announce the better-than-expected enrollment numbers. “And we are proud of her for that. That’s a historic accomplishment.”

Sylvia Mathews Burwell (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Sylvia Mathews Burwell (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, is Obama’s choice to succeed Sebelius. Her reputation and credentials are flawless. But we all know the fire she is about to enter. The hearings won’t cease. The votes to repeal the law won’t stop. But I’m certain Burwell will be an effective steward of the next phase of the ACA.

Five years is a long time for any cabinet secretary. According to The Post, Sebelius has served 500 days longer than the average HHS secretary. That she has lasted this long, despite the mistakes that cloud her final months, speaks to her dedication.“Thank you, Kathleen, for your service,” the president said. Yes, thank you.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.