There was a lot of speculation about what President Obama would say when he made his first extended remarks about problems with the Affordable Care Act. Would he apologize? Would he crack the whip on his own administration, pledging that no more mistakes would be tolerated? Would he attempt to deflect blame to the Republicans who have long opposed Obamacare?
What few observers expected, given the ongoing failure of the Obamacare exchanges, was that Obama would hold a pep rally for the troubled system. And yet that is what he did.
Speaking on a beautiful morning in the Rose Garden, surrounding himself with people he said had already benefited from Obamacare — more about them in a moment — the president began with the briefest of references to the exchange problems. "Of course, you've probably heard that HealthCare.gov ... hasn't worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work," Obama said. "Despite all that, thousands of people are signing up and saving money as we speak."
From there, Obama went on to list the purported benefits of the newly rolled-out law. People who already have health coverage enjoy new benefits, like mammograms and birth control. People with pre-existing conditions are able to purchase coverage like anybody else. And people without coverage will be able to buy it at a price they can afford.
"The point is, the essence of the law — the health insurance that's available to people — is working just fine," Obama said. "In some cases, actually, it’s exceeding expectations — the prices are lower than we expected; the choice is greater than we expected."
Listening, one might never realize that far-reaching malfunctions have nearly paralyzed the system. Obama seemed nearly out of touch with reality when he declared, a moment later, that "once the kinks in the website have been ironed out, [purchasing coverage through Obamacare] will be even smoother and even easier."
The president made a few more brief mentions of Obamacare's technical deficiencies during his 28-minute speech, but in the end his Rose Garden appearance bore a great resemblance to the campaign-style speeches he made selling the health plan when Congress was considering it back in 2009 and 2010. (Minus, of course, the now-discredited promise that anyone who has coverage and likes it can keep it under the new system.)
Nothing about the event seemed to go smoothly. For example, Obama said anyone having trouble with the Obamacare website could call an 800 number to apply for coverage. "You can get your questions answered by real people, 24 hours a day, in 150 different languages," Obama said. But a short time later, the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein tried the system and tweeted what he learned: "Can't make this up. Got through to 800 number, followed prompts, and got referred to Healthcare.gov."
Then there were the people Obama used as backdrops for his speech, people he said have "benefited from the Affordable Care Act already." It turns out that was a stretch. One was a man who works in a Philadelphia restaurant, does not have health care through his employer, but has, according to a White House press handout, "recently used Healthcare.gov to process his application and is waiting for the options for potential plans."
Another was a man just out of graduate school who has no health coverage but "is planning to enroll after he explores his coverage options on the D.C. exchange." Yet another was a Tennessee small business owner who "was able to register through Healthcare.gov and now plans to comparison shop for the best plan that meets her budget and needs."
As success stories go, they didn't represent much success.
A short time after the president's event, White House spokesman Jay Carney was either unable or unwilling to offer background on the website's problems, on the testing that took place before the rollout, on the contractor involved, or on whether the administration will penalize Americans for not buying insurance when the website on which insurance is sold doesn't work.
Talk about a bad day at the White House. When it was over, the longtime television news analyst Jeff Greenfield remarked, "I think it's fair to say that Obama's appearance today was easily the worst received since his first debate with Mitt."
Of course, Obama went on to recover decisively from that debate loss back in October 2012. But Obamacare might be a bigger challenge. Right now, the administration is struggling just to get the website going. But after that comes the law's real effect on millions of American lives. If that doesn't go well, no White House pep rally will be able to fix things.