In 2008, when Barack Obama was advancing on the presidency by means of successfully turning himself into the year’s most popular fashion statement, the fact was occasionally remarked that Barack Obama had made his persona into a mirror which was reflecting back precisely the images his audience wanted to see, the real Obama remained an invisible enigma.
Barack Obama managed to be elected presidency, occupied the White House for four years of economic misery while magically evading responsibility for the non-recovery, and was even, astonishingly, re-elected, while remaining essentially defined by the wishful fantasies of an admiring public.
Ironically, it seems that it was Barack Obama’s signature achievement, Obamacare, the long-elusive goal of left-wing dreams which would transform America, once and for all, into a European-style Welfare State, which proved to be his nemesis, his Hurricane Katrina, the touchstone of demonstrable performance which dispelled all the illusions and defined the real Obama. And his definition, as Peggy Noonan noted yesterday, is: incompetent.
I would add that in recent weeks I have begun to worry about the basic competency of the administration, its ability to perform the most fundamental duties of executive management. One reason I worry is that I frequently speak with people who interact with the White House, and when I say, “That place just doesn’t seem to work,” they don’t defend it, they offer off-the-record examples of how poorly the government is run. ...
It all looks so lax, so loosey-goosey. In the place of the energy and focus that would go into the running of things, the administering and managing of them, we have the preoccupation with spin, with how things look as opposed to how they are. The odd thing still is that the White House never misses a speech, a list of talking points, an opportunity to shape the argument on TV. They do the talking part, but the doing? They had 3½ years to make sure ObamaCare will work, three years to get it right top to bottom, to rejigger parts of the law that they finally judged wouldn’t work, to make the buying of a policy easy on the website. And they not only couldn’t do that, which itself constitutes an astounding and historic management failure, they make it clear they were taken aback by their failure. They didn’t know it was coming! Or some knew and for some reason couldn’t do anything.
And it’s all going to continue. One reason this scandal isn’t Katrina is that Katrina had a beginning and an end. The storm came, the storm left, the cleanup commenced and failed and then continued and succeeded. At some point it was over. ObamaCare will never be over. It’s going to poison the rest of the administration. It’s the story that won’t go away because it will continue to produce disorder. Wait, for instance, until small businesses realize it will be cheaper to throw their people off their coverage and take the fines than it will be to reinsure them under the new regime.
I’m worried, finally, that lines of traditionally assumed competence are being dropped. The past few weeks I can’t shake from my head this picture: The man with the football—the military aide who carries the U.S. nuclear codes, and who travels with the president—is carrying the wrong code. He’s carrying last month’s code, or the one from December 2012. And there’s a crisis—a series of dots on a radar screen traveling toward the continental U.S.—and the president is alerted. He’s in the holding room at a fundraiser out west. The man with the football is called in and he fumbles around in his briefcase and gets the code but wait, the date on the code is wrong. He scrambles, remembers there’s a file on his phone, but the phone ran out on the plane and he thought he could recharge in the holding room but there’s no electrical outlet. All eyes turn to him. “Wait—wait. No—uh—I don’t think that’s the code we use to launch against incoming from North Korea, I think that one takes out Paris!”
I have to say, I’ve never worried about this with any previous administration, ever.
Recognizing back in 2008 that Barack Obama was nothing but an Illinois state senator with no record of meaningful accomplishment whatsoever beyond (perhaps) writing his own autobiography at age 30, and $2.99, would get you a cup of coffee.
Barack Obama’s personal little elves over at Organize for Action (OFA), web address: http://www.barackobama.com, want all of us to talk about healthcare, but their image of the typical male American (see Tweeted picture above), for some unaccountable reason, has provoked ridicule and negative commentary, including a Twitchy page of mocking images.
For much of last year, a standard trope of President Obama’s speechwriters was that there were certain things only government could do. “That’s how we built this country — together,” he declared. “We constructed railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. We did those things together.” As some of us pointed out, for the cost of Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill alone, you could have built 1,567 Golden Gate Bridges — or one mega–Golden Gate Bridge stretching from Boston to just off the coast of Ireland. Yet there isn’t a single bridge, or a single dam (“You will never see another federal dam,” his assistant secretary of the interior assured an audience of environmentalists). Across the land, there was not a thing for doting network correspondents in hard hats to stand in front of and say, “Obama built this.”
Until now, that is. Obamacare is as close to a Hoover Dam as latter-day Big Government gets. Which is why its catastrophic launch is sobering even for those of us who’ve been saying for five years it would be a disaster. It’s as if at the ribbon-cutting the Hoover Dam cracked open and washed away the dignitaries; as if the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to traffic with its central span missing; as if Apollo 11 had taken off for the moon but landed on Newfoundland. Obama didn’t have to build a dam or a bridge or a spaceship, just a database and a website. This is his world, the guys he hangs with, the zeitgeist he surfs so dazzlingly, Apple and Google, apps and downloads. But his website’s a sclerotic dump, and the database is a hacker’s heaven, and all that’s left is the remorseless snail mail of millions and millions of cancellation letters.
For the last half-century, Obama has simply had to be. Just being Obama was enough to waft him onwards and upwards: He was the Harvard Law Review president who never published a word, the community organizer who never organized a thing, the state legislator who voted present. And then one day came the day when it wasn’t enough simply to be. For the first time in his life, he had to do. And it turns out he can’t. He’s not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. And Healthcare.gov is about what you’d expect if you nationalized a sixth of the economy and gave it to the Assistant Deputy Commissar of the Department of Paperwork and the Under-Regulator-General of the Bureau of Compliance.
Politics, the late Christopher Hitchens used to say, is show business for ugly people. But it’s also ugly business for show people. Thatcherism is a political philosophy; Obamaism is a vibe, a groove, a pose, an aesthetic. When his speechwriters are cooking, he’ll get them to work up a little riff about how it’s not about Big Government vs. Small Government, it’s about “smarter” government. A few months ago, he even gave it a hashtag! #SmarterGov. How cool is that? “Smart” refers less to the product than to the guys pitching it. “He’s probably the smartest guy ever to become president,” said the historian Michael Beschloss the day after Obama’s election. In an embarrassing effusion even by his own standards, another smart guy, the New York Times’ house conservative David Brooks, noted the incoming administration’s narrow range of almae matres and cooed: “If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard–Yale game anytime over the next four years, we’re screwed.” Obama and his courtiers were the smartest guys in town, so naturally their government would be smarter than all previous governments. A few weeks before Obamacare’s launch, one of the smart set, Dan Pfeiffer, promised it would be “a consumer experience unmatched by anything in government, but also in the private sector.” And he was right, kind of.
It’s a leader’s job to be skeptical of grand schemes. Sorry, that’s a conservative leader’s job. It is a liberal leader’s job to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful.
And this president wasn’t. I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.
People say Mr. Obama never had to run anything, but it may be more important that he never worked for the guy who had to run something, and things got fouled up along the way and he had to turn it around. He never had to meet a payroll, never knew that stress. He probably never had to buy insurance! And you know, his policies were probably gold-plated—at the law firm, through his wife’s considerable hospital job, in the Illinois Legislature, in the U.S. Senate. Those guys know how to take care of themselves! Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe that’s to his credit, knowing he was lucky. Too bad he didn’t know what he didn’t know, like how every part has to work for a complicated machine to work.
Here I will say something harsh, and it’s connected to the thing about words but also images.
From what I have seen the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but not read the book. They act bright, they know the reference, they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads. They haven’t read the histories, the texts, which carry more information, more texture, data and subtlety, and different points of view. They’ve only seen the movie—the Cubans had the missiles and Jack said “Not another war” and Bobby said “Pearl Harbor in reverse” and dreadful old Curtis LeMay chomped his cigar and said “We can fry a million of ‘em by this afternoon, Mr. President.” Grrr, grrr, good guys beat bad guys.
It’s as if history isn’t real to them. They run around tweeting, all of them, even those in substantial positions. “Darfur government inadequate. Genocide unacceptable.” They share their feelings – that happens to be one of the things they seem to think is real, what they feel. “Unjust treatment of women—scourge that hurts my heart.” This is the dialogue to the movies in their heads.
There’s a sense that they’re all freelancing, not really part of anything coherent.
For four years I have been told, by those who’ve worked in the administration and those who’ve visited it as volunteers or contractors, that the Obama White House isn’t organized. It’s just full of chatter. Meetings don’t begin on time, there’s no agenda, the list of those invited seems to expand and contract at somebody’s whim. There is a tendency to speak of how a problem will look and how its appearance should be handled, as opposed to what the problem is and should be done about it. People speak airily, without point. They scroll down, see a call that has to be returned, pop out and then in again.
It does not sound like a professional operation. And this is both typical of White Houses and yet on some level extreme. People have always had meetings to arrange meetings, but the lack of focus, the lack of point, the sense that they are operating within accepted levels of incoherence—this all sounds, actually, peculiar.
And when you apply this to the ObamaCare debacle, suddenly it seems to make sense. The White House is so unformed and chaotic that they probably didn’t ignore the problem, they probably held a million meetings on it. People probably said things like, “We’re experiencing some technological challenges but we’re sure we’ll be up by October,” and other people said, “Yes, it’s important we launch strong,” and others said, “The Republicans will have a field day if we’re not.” And then everyone went to their next meeting. And no one did anything. And the president went off and made speeches.
Because the doing isn’t that important, the talking is.
King Prawn, at Ricochet, identifies by metaphor the key distinguishing characteristics of The Public Good.
Whether you work in an office, a shop, or a store, you’ve had this experience. Every break room, lunch room, and food mess has one: the community fridge. The chair I occupied in the lunch room today was right next to one of these things, and every time the door was opened I was reminded of what a perfect metaphor it is for any contrived public good. Let’s review a few of the similarities:
Everyone uses it whether they like it or not
No one takes responsibility for its upkeep
Everyone claims a disproportionate amount of the good
Individuality and property rights disappear within it (I ate a sandwich named Steve…)
Unwanted personal items are often abandoned here
Over time, the condition deteriorates to a completely unsanitary state
Everyone complains about the conditions
Everyone expects someone else to deal with the problem
Eventually those who use it the least end up cleaning the thing out
The smell never completely goes away
In over 20 years of gainful employment, I’ve never seen a common work refrigerator that did not fit this description perfectly. Every experience I have had with a contrived public good has been exactly the same — be it public transportation, public restrooms, or public recreational facilities. We can now expect the same in our healthcare.
Clay Shirky describes how government IT cannot effectively translate planning into reality, avoids testing, and insists on shunning a phased roll-out approach but then finds itself experiencing exactly that.
It’s certainly true that Federal IT is chronically challenged by its own processes. But the problem with Healthcare.gov was not timeline or budget. The problem was that the site did not work, and the administration decided to launch it anyway.
This is not just a hiring problem, or a procurement problem. This is a management problem, and a cultural problem. The preferred method for implementing large technology projects in Washington is to write the plans up front, break them into increasingly detailed specifications, then build what the specifications call for. It’s often called the waterfall method, because on a timeline the project cascades from planning, at the top left of the chart, down to implementation, on the bottom right.
Like all organizational models, waterfall is mainly a theory of collaboration. By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work. Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.
This is a perfect fit for a culture that communicates in the deontic language of legislation. It is also a dreadful way to make new technology. If there is no room for learning by doing, early mistakes will resist correction. If the people with real technical knowledge can’t deliver bad news up the chain, potential failures get embedded rather than uprooted as the work goes on. ...
[Emphasis added:] The vision of “technology” as something you can buy according to a plan, then have delivered as if it were coming off a truck, flatters and relieves managers who have no idea and no interest in how this stuff works, but it’s also a breeding ground for disaster. The mismatch between technical competence and executive authority is at least as bad in government now as it was in media companies in the 1990s, but with much more at stake.
Law Professor Jonathan H. Adler, who posts at Volokh, is just not as intelligent as Barack Obama. Consequently, he cannot understand how the president simply waving his hand at a press conference, and announcing that he does not intend to enforce his own federal law can practically serve as a solution which will preserve insurance policies cancelled as a result of the Obamacare law. You have to be as intelligent as Barack Obama to understand the operation of the dialectic in the interaction between these things.
Yesterday, the President announced a purported fix to the problem that, under the PPACA [aka Obamacare], insurance companies are not allowed to renew policies that fail to comply with PPACA requirements, even if consumers like their existing plans. ...
According to the President’s announcement, insurance companies will be allowed to renew policies that were in force as of October 1, 2013 for one additional year, even if they fail to meet relevant PPACA requirements. What is the legal basis for this change? The Administration has not cited any. ... According to various press reports, the Administration argues it may do this as a matter of enforcement discretion (much as it did with immigration). In other words, the Administration is not changing the law. It’s just announcing it will not enforce federal law (while simultaneously threatening to veto legislation that would authorize the step the President has decided to take).
Does this make the renewal of non-compliant policies legal? No. The legal requirement remains on the books so the relevant health insurance plans remain illegal under federal law. The President’s decision does not change relevant state laws either. So insurers will still need to obtain approval from state insurance commissioners. This typically requires submitting rates and plan specifications for approval. This can take some time, and is disruptive because most insurance companies have already set their offerings for the next year. It’s no wonder that some insurance commissioners have already indicated they have no plans to approve non-compliant plans.
Yet even if state commissioners approve the plans, they will still be illegal under federal law. ... Given this fact, why would any insurance company agree to renew such a plan? It’s nice that regulators may forbear enforcing the relevant regulatory requirements, but this is not the only source of potential legal jeopardy. So, for instance, what happens when there’s a legal dispute under one of these policies? Say, for instance, an insurance company denies payment for something that is not covered under the policy but that would have been covered under the PPACA and the insured sues? Would an insurance company really want to have to defend this decision in court? After all, this would place the insurance company in the position of seeking judicial enforcement of an illegal insurance policy. If there’s an answer to this, I haven’t seen it . ... It’s almost as if the Administration has not thought this through.
The young Barack Obama, preparing for the presidency.
Mark Steyn looks on in admiration as Barack Obama legislates via press conference pronouncement, then proceeds to analyse the great man’s “So-let-it-be-written-so-let-it-be-done” style of presidential leadership.
On Thursday, [Barack Obama] passed a new law at a press conference. George III never did that. But, having ordered America’s insurance companies to comply with Obamacare, the president announced that he is now ordering them not to comply with Obamacare. The legislative branch (as it’s still quaintly known) passed a law purporting to grandfather your existing health plan. The regulatory bureaucracy then interpreted the law so as to un-grandfather your health plan. So His Most Excellent Majesty has commanded that your health plan be de-un-grandfathered. That seems likely to work. The insurance industry had three years to prepare for the introduction of Obamacare. Now the King has given them six weeks to de-introduce Obamacare.
“I wonder if he has the legal authority to do this,” mused former Vermont governor Howard Dean. But he’s obviously some kind of right-wing wacko. Later that day, anxious to help him out, Congress offered to “pass” a “law” allowing people to keep their health plans. The same president who had unilaterally commanded that people be allowed to keep their health plans indignantly threatened to veto any such law to that effect: It only counts if he does it — geddit? As his court eunuchs at the Associated Press obligingly put it: “Obama Will Allow Old Plans.” It’s Barry’s world; we just live in it.
The reason for the benign Sovereign’s exercise of the Royal Prerogative is that millions of his subjects — or “folks,” as he prefers to call us, no fewer than 27 times during his press conference — have had their lives upended by Obamacare. Your traditional hard-core statist, surveying the mountain of human wreckage he has wrought, usually says, “Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” But Obama is the first to order that his omelet be unscrambled and the eggs put back in their original shells. Is this even doable? No. That’s the point. When it doesn’t work, he’ll be able to give another press conference blaming the insurance companies, or the state commissioners, or George W. Bush . . .
The most telling line, the one that encapsulates the gulf between the boundless fantasies of the faculty-lounge utopian and the messiness of reality, was this: “What we’re also discovering is that insurance is complicated to buy.” Gee, thanks for sharing, genius. Maybe you should have thought of that before you governmentalized one-sixth of the economy. ...
[A]s historian Michael Beschloss pronounced the day after his election, he’s “probably the smartest guy ever to become president.” Naturally, Obama shares this assessment. As he assured us five years ago, “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors.” Well, apart from his signature health-care policy. That’s a mystery to him. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working,” he told us. The buck stops with something called “the executive branch,” which is apparently nothing to do with him. As evidence that he was entirely out of the loop, he offered this:
Had I been I informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying, “Boy, this is going to be great.” You know, I’m accused of a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying, “This is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity,” a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.
Ooooo-kay. So, if I follow correctly, the smartest president ever is not smart enough to ensure that his website works; he’s not smart enough to inquire of others as to whether his website works; he’s not smart enough to check that his website works before he goes out and tells people what a great website experience they’re in for. But he is smart enough to know that he’s not stupid enough to go around bragging about how well it works if he’d already been informed that it doesn’t work. So he’s smart enough to know that if he’d known what he didn’t know he’d know enough not to let it be known that he knew nothing. The country’s in the very best of hands.
Michael Beschloss is right: This is what it means to be smart in a neo-monarchical America. Obama spake, and it shall be so. And, if it turns out not to be so, why pick on him? He talks a good Royal Proclamation; why get hung up on details?
Until October 1, Obama had never done anything — not run a gas station, or a doughnut stand — other than let himself be wafted onward and upward to the next do-nothing gig. Even in his first term, he didn’t really do: Starting with the 2009 trillion-dollar stimulus, he ran a money-no-object government that was all money and no objects; he spent and spent, and left no trace. Some things he massively expanded (food stamps, Social Security disability) and other things he massively diminished (effective foreign policy), but all were, so to speak, preexisting conditions. Obamacare is the first thing Obama has actually done, and, if you’re the person it’s being done to, it’s not pretty.
The president promised to “fundamentally transform” America. Certainly, other men have succeeded in transforming settled, free societies: Pierre Trudeau did in Canada four decades ago, and so, in post-war Britain, did the less charismatic Clement Attlee. And, if you subscribe to their particular philosophy, their transformations were effected very efficiently. But Obama is an incompetent, so “fundamentally transformed” is a euphemism for “wrecked beyond repair.” As a socialist, he makes a good socialite.
But on he staggers, with a wave of his scepter, delaying this, staying that, exempting the other, according to his regal whim and internal polling. The omniscient beneficent Sovereign will now graciously “allow” us “folks” to keep all those junk plans from bad-apple insurers. Yet even the wisest King cannot reign forever, and what will happen decades down the road were someone less benign — perhaps even (shudder) a Republican — to ascend the throne and wield these mighty powers?
Hey, relax: If you like your constitution, you can keep your constitution. Period. And your existing amendments. Well, most of them — except for the junk ones . . .
Fouad Ajami, in the Wall Street Journal, comments on the recent dissolution of the illusion.
The current troubles of the Obama presidency can be read back into its beginnings. Rule by personal charisma has met its proper fate. The spell has been broken, and the magician stands exposed. We need no pollsters to tell us of the loss of faith in Mr. Obama’s policies—and, more significantly, in the man himself. Charisma is like that. Crowds come together and they project their needs onto an imagined redeemer. The redeemer leaves the crowd to its imagination: For as long as the charismatic moment lasts—a year, an era—the redeemer is above and beyond judgment. He glides through crises, he knits together groups of varied, often clashing, interests. Always there is that magical moment, and its beauty, as a reference point. ...
Forgive the personal reference, but from the very beginning of Mr. Obama’s astonishing rise, I felt that I was witnessing something old and familiar. My advantage owed nothing to any mastery of American political history. I was guided by my immersion in the political history of the Arab world and of a life studying Third World societies.
In 2008, seeing the Obama crowds in Portland, Denver and St. Louis spurred memories of the spectacles that had attended the rise and fall of Arab political pretenders. I had lived through the era of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. He had emerged from a military cabal to become a demigod, immune to judgment. His followers clung to him even as he led the Arabs to a catastrophic military defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. He issued a kind of apology for his performance. But his reign was never about policies and performance. It was about political magic.
In trying to grapple with, and write about, the Obama phenomenon, I found guidance in a book of breathtaking erudition, “Crowds and Power” (1962) by the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti. Born in Bulgaria in 1905 and educated in Vienna and Britain, Canetti was unmatched in his understanding of the passions, and the delusions, of crowds. The crowd is a “mysterious and universal phenomenon,” he writes. It forms where there was nothing before. There comes a moment when “all who belong to the crowd get rid of their difference and feel equal.” Density gives the illusion of equality, a blessed moment when “no one is greater or better than another.” But the crowd also has a presentiment of its own disintegration, a time when those who belong to the crowd “creep back under their private burdens.”
The Day the Magic Died
(Lines inspired by the WSJ headline “When the Obama Magic Died.”)
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that magic used to make ‘em smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But October made me shiver
With every paper they delivered
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When the papers said I lied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the magic died
And while I read a book of Marx
The party gathered in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the magic died
So bye-bye, my Obamacare
Took my browser to the website, but the website was bare
And them good old boys were losin’ all their health care,
Singin’ “This’ll be the way that I die
This’ll be the way that I die”