Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How could Obama not have known?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 2:12 PM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: How could the President not have known of the Obamacare website flaws?
  • She says Obama prefers a "no-drama" White House in which people stay in their lanes
  • Staffers are not encouraged to bring the President bad news, she says
  • Borger: There was no rollout czar for Obamacare; everyone stayed in their silo

(CNN) -- As the story of the Obamacare website fiasco unfolds, senior administration aides tell me that the President is "mad, frustrated and angry."

Mad that his signature legislative achievement is stuck at the gate, frustrated that he's running out of time to fix it and angry that he's got a second-term agenda now going nowhere. He's so furious, in fact, that he stepped out of character to vent to an assembled group of top aides, saying he would have delayed the website if he had known it was a mess.

By Thursday, the president was venting publicly. "Had I been 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."

All of which begs the real question: How could he not have known?

It's a real head-scratcher. Most powerful man in the world. Most important issue. Most politically explosive, particularly coming on the heels of the government shutdown. Consider the context: Republicans had just tried to defund Obamacare, and they lost in a heap of public humiliation. So the rollout of Obamacare had to be really impressive, because the Republicans had to be proven wrong.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

And yet, as the dry runs continued to produce red flags -- over and over -- the President remained in his steely cocoon. If this were the presidency of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, the obvious theories would abound: The chief executive is disengaged. Or incurious. Or worse. But since Obama is none of the above, what gives?

This much is clear, after speaking with both past and present senior administration officials: No one was really in charge, so no one knew for sure how bad the overall picture was. What's more, and -- perhaps most telling -- no one wanted even to hint to the President that this techno-savvy administration possibly had a website stuck in, say, 1995. "People don't like to tell him bad news," says an ex-White House staffer. "Part of it is the no-drama culture."

Oh, that. The infamous no-drama Obama credo: no panic, no drama. "No drama is attractive to people, except there are times when people actually should light their hair on fire," says one former senior administration official. "That would have been a very good thing."

Summers: Obama "right to be angry"
Obama's health care woes

Indeed. People who have served in top jobs at the White House seem to agree on one thing: a President who wants to get at the truth has to understand the extent of his own isolation. And then establish a zone of immunity for truth-tellers.

That, of course, presumes that the top staff inside the White House knew the full truth. And that probably wasn't the case. Again, you ask, how can that be? Answer: The operation resembled the proverbial blind men and the elephant parable: Everyone seemed to touch a part of it, but no one could really see the whole picture, or disaster coming right at them.

"It's not that someone had an envelope with a note in it saying here comes the second-term crisis," an ex-top White House staffer says. "They were thinking there were some bugs, they would be fixed; these are smart people."

They may be smart, but it appears they had no singular leader. No rollout czar. They had health care wonks and tech wonks and political wonks and even a presidential wonk, but no put-it-all-together-and-make-sure-it-all-works wonks.

And maybe, no truth-telling wonks, who would have warned the president that it was a no-no to promise that people could keep their health care policies.

Everyone, it seems, lived in his own silo. And that's where they stayed.

This is a President, says one admirer, "who likes everyone to stay in his lane." Which begs the question: Whose lane was it to say the website wasn't working? The probability is that the information filtered to a bunch of different people in a bunch of different lanes.

Sure, the stay-in-your-lane theory of operation is important to a well-run White House, but here's the flip side if it's implemented too literally: If you hear something outside your purview that is bad, you may not want to report it higher. Why? "Everyone thinks if it isn't in my lane, and I talk about it, I'm being a tattletale," says one ex-administration official. "That would be discouraged as bad behavior in this current White House." (An exception, some point out, ex-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who "encouraged people to contradict each other." To put it mildly, Rahm was pro-drama.)

Which brings us to the President, who isn't. And if you aren't 100% sure that the website is a mess -- because no one is actually in charge to tell the White House with any certainty -- what is there to bring to the President? Reports of some bad tests? Bugs? Fixes that are being made?

"Nobody is trying to create drama, angst and anxiety," says an ex-White House official. "And it's hard to go in there and say, 'Well, I don't think this is going to work.' "

So, the irony. All the effort to spare the drama created a huge theatrical mess all of its own. The reviews are lousy, and now the unhappy leading man is stewing, centerstage.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT