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Don't fire Sebelius; just fix the mess

By John Kimberly, Special to CNN
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Thu October 31, 2013
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius prepares to testify before a House committee about the HealthCare.gov website
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius prepares to testify before a House committee about the HealthCare.gov website
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many Republicans want Obama to fire Kathleen Sebelius over website dysfunction
  • John Kimberly: The issue is not her future, it's what needs to be done to fix the mess
  • He asks: Is short-term boost in polls for Obama worth firing a Cabinet member?
  • Kimberly: We are seeing political hardball and grandstanding on steroids

Editor's note: John R. Kimberly is the Henry Bower professor of entrepreneurial studies and professor of management, health care systems and sociology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He and Hamid Bouchikhi co-wrote "The Soul of the Corporation: How to Manage the Identity of Your Company."

(CNN) -- A host of Republicans is calling for the head of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the troubled health care website rollout. Thirty-three Republican members of Congress signed Rep. John Fleming's letter to President Barack Obama demanding that Sebelius be fired. But whether to sack her is not one of the questions we should be asking.

The secretary spent 3 ½ hours testifying before a congressional committee on Wednesday about the awful mess that was the launch of the federal website intended to allow millions of Americans to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Punctuated by moments of contrition and obvious frustration, her performance was intended both to signal resolve to the American people that getting the website fully operational was her principal priority and to shield the president from the slings and arrows of the many critics of Obamacare, who gleefully saw this as an opportunity to embarrass him and re-energize their efforts to derail the law.

John Kimberly
John Kimberly

The news Wednesday was replete with stories of Obama's sagging popularity, and one can't help but tie this drop, at least in part, to the problems with the rollout.

So what is he, as our nation's chief executive, to do? Should he heed those calls to demonstrate forceful leadership in a time of seriously flawed performance and fire Sebelius? After all, the argument goes, something like this would not be tolerated in the business world. The consequences would be swift -- the person responsible for the mess would be fired. And didn't she admit in her testimony that she was responsible?

Yes, she did. But here's why the question of whether she should be fired is not the right one.

Obama needs to keep his eye on the big picture. The issue is not Sebelius' future, it's what needs to be done to fix the mess. She has accepted responsibility and has specified a time frame within which she has said the dysfunction will be repaired. Obama should support the secretary fully in her efforts. It is much more important for the President in the long run to make sure that people can sign up for insurance coverage under the ACA than to finger a scapegoat and orchestrate a public beheading.

The difference between forceful leadership and nuanced leadership is significant, and the context and circumstances should determine which -- or what blend of the two -- is appropriate. Whatever momentary boost a "forceful" action might give the president in the polls would not justify the potential long-term consequences of firing a Cabinet member who arguably has served well in turbulent times.

Obama said Wednesday that he would take ultimate responsibility, acknowledging that the buck stops at his desk. Two very tough questions, however, lie ahead: First, what should he do about Sebelius if the mess isn't a whole lot less messy by the end of November? And second, what about his own political capital?

Secy. Sebelius in the hot seat
Sebelius to Congressman: 'Whatever'
Obamacare site down for Sebelius hearing

Let's reserve judgment on the first one until the end of November comes around. At this point, my guess is that if implementation of the website hasn't improved very much, Sebelius will resign.

Regarding the second, it's clear that Obama has a lot riding on getting the system to work "well enough." It might not happen by the end of November, but it will happen.

It's not yet clear where the problem with rolling out the health care website really lies. Why such a shambles? Early indications point in two directions: diffuse authority (no one was really in charge of the whole initiative) and poor execution (the contractors simply dropped the ball). As we learn more about how the website was designed and tested, we will be in a better position to figure out what went wrong and where. But for the time being, we don't know -- so why drop the guillotine blade and run the risk of beheading the wrong person?

The problem is real, and so are the politics. Precisely because the ACA is so important to the President, its detractors see a golden opportunity to inflict possibly serious damage on its future. This is political hardball on steroids, and the grandstanding that we see in front of the cameras helps us understand -- as if we didn't already -- why 74% of Americans polled are unhappy with the behavior of Congress. Calls to fire the secretary are intended to put Obama in the position of seeming weak if he does not. So he needs to respond in a way that is seen as decisive yet supportive of the secretary.

The rearview mirror on the health information exchange mess isn't quite in focus yet, because we're still in the middle of it. But it's true that little changes tend to have small ripple effects, and big changes, like the health care act, have huge ripple effects. And no change, little or big, is ever without a glitch.

Life in Washington is a circus. There are many rings with different events going on in each, and all are vying for the audience's attention. If the circus is to continue, the most important job is to know where the tent poles are and guard them zealously. Stay tuned.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Kimberly.

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