President Obama took the first step this week to rescuing his signature domestic achievement: He finally admitted Obamacare has a problem.
After months -- and years -- of assuring the public that the most comprehensive overhaul to the health care system since Medicare would be ready for its October rollout, the president for the first time publicly conceded that his administration failed to prepare for the barrage of consumers seeking information about the health law.
But many Democrats worry that Obama's response was akin to a doctor giving a diagnosis without identifying any of the symptoms — and with no immediate remedy.
Though Obama expressed anger over the botched construction of the Obamacare website, he didn’t address the root cause of the problems, when it would be fixed or even who would repair the ailing system.
Obama is instead playing salesman, looking to convince the public not to turn away in frustration during a crucial period that could fatally wound the health law right out of the gate.
“No one who decides to purchase a plan has to pay their first premium until Dec. 15th,” Obama said from the Rose Garden. “And unlike the day-after-Thanksgiving sales for the latest PlayStation or flat-screen TVs, the insurance plans don't run out.”
Some progressives privately dismissed the message, saying the president had to do more to counter the wave of criticism from Republicans no longer distracted by the government shutdown and debt fight. They are urging him to be more revealing about the administration's efforts to fix the insurance website's glitches.
“I thought he was selling steak knives,” quipped a Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House. “But I guess it's come to this — they were getting hammered. I don't think it would hurt, however, to provide a little more transparency about what actually is going on. Otherwise, the questions just snowball.”
That strategist isn’t alone in calling for a major tactical shift from the White House.
Former White House health care adviser Ezekiel Emanuel this week said the administration should provide daily briefings about efforts to fix the website, and former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said people should be fired for butchering the rollout.
The White House, though, has shared few details, with press secretary Jay Carney directing queries to the Department of Health and Human Services. Reporters pushed back against Carney, saying that the health department had also failed to answer their questions.
The president’s remarks were a far cry from the rosy rhetoric he used to describe his health blueprint ahead of the launch of public exchanges. Obama, who previously insisted that shopping for health plans was as simple as comparing prices for airline tickets, took to the presidential podium to remind Americans they could sign up for the exchanges over the phone and through mail as well.
And by not giving a detailed accounting of the website's woes, the president essentially upped the pressure on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is expected appear on Capitol Hill on Oct. 30 to testify about the Obamacare rollout.
Both Republicans and Democrats alike see the hearing as a possible turning point in the heated Obamacare debate.
GOP leaders are demanding that heads roll over Obamacare. So far, the president has shown no willingness to hand pink slips to those at the center of the controversy.
“Oct. 30 will tell the tale; I think the nation is a little annoyed,” Democratic strategist Christopher Hahn said. “[Sebelius] better be prepared and she better have answers and a solid plan for how to fix the problems. If she doesn’t, she's not going to be secretary much longer.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans welcomed the Democratic grumbling.
"Of course he's being criticized by the Left," said former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss. "This is something they've been aiming for since [President Harry] Truman. The rollout could not have a been a bigger catastrophe."
However, Barbour also cautioned Republicans looking to capitalize on the Obamacare setbacks.
"Stay focused on policy, not tactics," he said, referring to the GOP's failed government-shutdown strategy. "For weeks and weeks, Obama has been sinking like a rock. The only thing holding him up was Republicans."