One person has taken more of political beating than President Obama with the nation’s attention focused on the botched Obamacare rollout: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Sebelius survived a series of contentious hearings on Capitol Hill in the wake of the glitch-plagued launch of the healthcare.gov website, but Democrats are growing weary of defending her amid an onslaught of attacks that paint the health secretary as the face of government incompetence.
The revelation that Sebelius was aware of problems with the online marketplaces six months before they went live — as was Obama — have created a fresh set of questions about her competence and transparency.
“Just when I think we’ve hit the bottom, it sinks to another low,” one Democratic pollster said of the slow drip of information about what senior administration officials knew pre-launch.
Along with other health officials, Sebelius received a briefing on April 4 from private consultancy McKinsey & Co. warning about “insufficient time and [the] scope of end-to-end testing,” the “significant dependency on external parties/contractors” and “evolving requirements” for the Obamacare website, a report obtained by the Washington Examiner showed.
Two weeks later, Sebelius testified on Capitol Hill that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act was “on track and on time.”
Though also aware of the McKinsey report, Obama has said he was blindsided and never expected the litany of issues with the online marketplaces, calling into question Sebelius’ communications with the West Wing and the president’s oversight of his legacy-defining accomplishment.
Republicans in turn have saved much of their ammunition for Sebelius, calling for her firing on a daily basis while avoiding similar demands for the likes of Marilyn Tavenner, chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a central player in the construction and oversight of healthcare.gov.
But pushing Sebelius out of office will not be that easy.
Even if Obama wanted to fire his lone HHS secretary — a prospect the White House has repeatedly dismissed — he would face the near impossible task of getting another nominee for the post confirmed.
“Who can they replace Kathleen Sebelius with that would survive Senate confirmation?” asked GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.
“In theory, they could simply ask her for her resignation and offer Republicans a more nonpartisan, Fortune-500 type who can handle a project like this. But I don’t see them going that way,” he added.
Republicans of late have blocked a trio of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court. They would have even more incentive to reject any Obama selection tasked with spearheading a health law that conservatives would love to dismantle.
The White House still refuses to even entertain the notion of Obama dismissing his chief administrator of the Affordable Care Act.
"The president is focused on making sure everyone involved in this effort is working 24-7 to solve the problem," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday when asked about Sebelius' standing with Obama.
If the White House had hoped to use Sebelius as a political foil, that strategy has proven short-lived.
Obama’s approval ratings have tanked of late, with the White House absorbing the brunt of the blame for the mishandling of the most comprehensive overhaul to the health system since Medicare.
For better or worse, some analysts said, Obama and Sebelius’ fortunes are now inexorably linked.
“Her inability to either advise or consent with regard to the glitches is malpractice of the highest order for any Cabinet member," Republican strategist Patrick Griffin said. “And Obama appears to be unwilling or unable to fire folks even more incompetent than he is.”
“This is a terrible indictment of her — but it’s a worse indictment of the president," said Griffin.