Paul Begala: Obama has three problems over Obamacare: technology, credibility and politics
Begala says lofty promises part of any presidency, but these problems are eminently fixable
He says website must be fixed; otherwise insurance cancellations would be smaller deal
Begala: Affordable Care Act already working in major ways, and problems will be overcome
Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.
President Barack Obama has three intersecting problems:
• A technology problem that has made it near impossible for folks to shop on the insurance exchanges;
• A credibility problem born of his unfortunate (and unnecessary) pledge that every single American will be able to keep his or her insurance; and
• A political problem as some Democrats flinch in the face of the first two and most Republicans pounce.
Unforced errors are infuriating, to be sure. And overblown promises that don’t always match reality are an occupational hazard of the presidency – as well as every other human endeavor. Few of us embark on a bold new enterprise pledging that things will be screwed up along the way but will be better in the end, even though that’s usually how big journeys actually go.
Yet despite the bed-wetting from Beltway Chicken Littles, the President’s problems are eminently fixable. The Affordable Care Act isn’t collapsing. The Obama presidency isn’t imploding. And the ninnies making those sweeping and stupid predictions will one day look like the Washington pundit who boldly declared of the Clinton presidency, “This week we can talk about ‘Is the presidency over?’ “ He asked that question 11 days after Bill Clinton’s inaugural. His first inaugural. Clinton’s presidency was not over for another 2,911 days.
So how does the President get back on track? The first and most important job is to get the dang website working. I cannot imagine the cold fury Obama must feel toward those who assured him all was well with the massively complicated technology challenge. Getting this right is the most important aspect of recovery. When – not if, when – people can go online and see that most of them can get the same coverage or better than their previous insurance for the same cost or less, Obamacare will quickly become unassailable.
Yes, it is frightening to receive a letter canceling your insurance. But a lot of those policies weren’t worth the paper they were written on. We don’t allow airlines to sell you a ticket on a plane with a rubber-band-driven propeller. We don’t allow shipbuilding companies to sell you a boat made of old screen doors. And we don’t allow fast-food joints to sell you a burger that’s made of monkey meat. Nor should we allow insurance policies that don’t cover checkups or hospitalization. And if you have a junk policy then, yes, it’s going to be canceled.
The cancellation letters – and even the unfortunate presidential pledge – would not be such a big deal if the website were working. The American people are smart and, thank goodness, less panicky than the Washington wussies that populate the punditry. If they come to believe a program works for them, they will forgive initial miscues. That’s why comparing problems with the Obamacare exchanges to the botched response to Katrina are embarrassing, bordering on obscene. Need I remind you that at least 1,833 Americans died in Katrina?
The better analogy is to President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug plan. The prescription drug plan’s website was a disaster. As Politifact has noted, senior citizens could not get on the website. Call centers were understaffed, and misinformation proliferated. But after the bumpy start, nine in 10 seniors who use the program now approve of it.
The politics of enacting health reform have always been difficult. The 85% of us who already have health insurance were worried we might lose out to benefit the 15% who lack coverage. But in time that phenomenon will flip: While only a small minority of Americans will have to wrestle with a balky website, and an even smaller minority will receive a cancellation letter, the vast majority of us get major benefits – without having to do a thing.
• If you have a pre-existing condition, you cannot be denied coverage. Ever.
• If you have cancer or a serious disability or a chronic illness, you will no longer live in fear of reaching your policy’s annual or lifetime limit.
• If you are on Medicare, you get free wellness checkups, mammograms and a shrinking of the “doughnut hole” that will make your bill for prescription drugs shrink.
• You cannot ever be subject to discrimination for being a woman, or being older.
• You can carry your young-adult children on your policy until they are 26.
So breathe deeply, everyone. These aren’t the last hassles we will have as the Affordable Care Act comes into full force. The problems are real. They are vexing. They are hurting the Obama presidency. But they can – and I think will – be overcome.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.