Obama’s speech underplayed Obamacare’s problems. But it doesn’t matter.

October 21, 2013

The problem with President Obama's Rose Garden address on the Affordable Care Act was that it was basically identical to the speech Obama would've given if the law's launch had been smooth.

(Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar/EPA)
(Kristoffer Tripplaar/EPA)

"You've probably heard that HealthCare.gov, the new Web site where people can apply for health insurance and browse and buy affordable plans in most states, hasn't worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work," Obama said.

"Hasn't worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work" is an understatement. "Hasn't worked" is closer to the truth.

But you wouldn't have known that from Obama's speech. Most of it was dedicated to the good the federal health-care law is already doing. The president emphasized that the Affordable Care Act "is not just a Web site." It's a Medicaid expansion, and it's got consumer protections, and delivery-system reforms, and all of those are ongoing.

The problem is that much of the law is a Web site. When the White House defined what it would mean for the Affordable Care Act to be a success, that definition ran right through the Web site. And Obama knows the Web site needs to be fixed. "We've had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team," he promised. "And we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem. And we are confident that we will get all the problems fixed."

Beyond that, the details of the rescue effort were vague. There was no clear explanation of what was going wrong. There was no timetable for when it would be fixed. Obama repeatedly said that he was angry, but he sounded ebullient.

In the end, though, Obama's speech doesn't matter. Either the Web site will be fixed in a reasonable time frame, and the law will work, or it won't be fixed and the law will begin to fail. The Affordable Care Act is no longer a political abstraction. It's the law, and it will be judged not on how well politicians message it, but how much it does to improve people's lives.

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Brad Plumer · October 21, 2013