Michael Zuckerman: Health and Human Services secretary should be replaced
He says New York Michael Bloomberg has the ability to fix what's wrong with Obamacare
Bloomberg's term is ending, and he's looking for a big new job, Zuckerman says
Zuckerman: Picking Bloomberg would allow Obama a fresh start on his signature program
Editor’s Note: Michael Zuckerman is a writer at the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He previously worked as the research assistant to CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen and on several political campaigns, including in Ohio for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.
Liberals and conservatives don’t agree on much these days, but many agree on this: The Department of Health and Human Services’ HealthCare.gov rollout has been a debacle. That’s reason enough for President Obama to replace agency Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and he should go with an unconventional choice: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In leading the department as it prepared to launch the national insurance exchange platform, Sebelius has presided over less a rollout and more a rolling calamity. The ongoing fiasco has not only dealt a body blow to the Affordable Care Act, it has set back the entire progressive project of good, smart government by failing so ridiculously on one of its most visible public initiatives.
On the left, the two most prominent reasons given for not firing Sebelius have little to do with just deserts. Many argue that it would be nearly impossible to get a suitable replacement confirmed by the Senate. Others contend that the situation is so critical that a leadership change would be a detrimental distraction: Why burn precious time tying a nominee up in Senate hearings when the clock is ticking fast on a much-needed fix?
The “keep Sebelius” crowd isn’t being irrational, but they are being uncreative.
Yes, it would be complicated to bring in a new Health and Human Services secretary at a precarious time for the rollout – but presidents change generals in the middle of wars, and we change presidents every four or eight years, no matter what kind of craziness is going on (fall 2008, as everyone remembers, was not a calm time in American life).
And yes, the obvious roster of Obama allies would face trouble in the Senate, where the Democrats’ lack of a filibuster-proof majority will sorely tempt Republicans, as Ron Brownstein put it last week, “to use this as kind of a way to leverage more concessions from the administration.” (Indeed, much of the coverage across the media has focused on how safe Sebelius’ job is.)
But what if Obama made Republicans an offer they didn’t see coming – and couldn’t refuse?
Enter Bloomberg, who is not a health care guru per se but certainly has some experience in overseeing New York’s $6.3 billion health care system (not to mention his strong feelings against large, sugary sodas). Moreover, what he lacks in specific health care expertise, he more than makes up for in managerial prowess and technological acumen, as well as – relevant to the confirmation fight question – political independence.
Bloomberg didn’t, after all, inherit his billions; he founded Bloomberg LP in 1981, and it’s now a company with $8 billion in revenue (he’s still the majority shareholder). Most of that revenue comes from selling Bloomberg terminals, which are sophisticated computer platforms that integrate data from a dizzying array of sources. That wouldn’t be such a bad skill set to have at Health and Human Services right now.
Just as important, Bloomberg is still at the top of his game, and he’s going to need a job in two months. When asked by a New Yorker reporter late this summer what he’d do after his final term expires, he proposed two weeks of skiing and golf. “After that, I’d go ballistic.” So he’ll be looking for a new place to hang his hat come January 15. Although there aren’t a lot of positions that compare to being America’s Mayor, Cabinet secretary just might.
Though he’s a Republican-turned-independent, Bloomberg is much more liberal than today’s Republican Party, and it’s inconceivable he’d be popular with conservatives on the Hill (libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has called him “Nanny Bloomberg”).
That said, Democrats wouldn’t need that many votes to break a GOP filibuster: An independent fiscal conservative like Bloomberg would have a strong shot at peeling off bipartisanship-tolerant senators like Maine’s Susan Collins, Illinois’ Mark Kirk, Arizona’s John McCain, Ohio’s Rob Portman, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.
Add five of those folks to the 55 votes in the Democratic caucus, and Bloomberg is confirmable.
Even if the president decides to keep Sebelius in place, he should still call on Bloomberg’s managerial and IT prowess and enlist him as the new “Obamacare czar.”
Jeff Zients, former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, is currently filling this role, but he lacks Bloomberg’s unique stature and experience – and is slated to join the White House staff as director of the National Economic Council on January 1 (the same day New York will welcome its new mayor). “Obamacare czar” would lack the prestige of a Cabinet appointment, but it’s still about the kind of thorny public problem that the newly unemployed mayor might be willing to tackle.
Not all Democrats will love the Bloomberg option – Bill de Blasio’s huge momentum in New York is in part a liberal referendum on the current mayor’s three terms – but the man has more to recommend him than lovability: He’s a credible, creative and confirmable nominee who would offer the president (whose approval ratings have just dipped to 39% in the latest Gallup tracking poll) one of the few chances he’ll get to turn the page on the current HealthCare.gov mess.
That would do a lot to safeguard health reform for the long haul – and begin to restore some much-needed faith in good government.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Zuckerman.