Obama picks Zients to oversee ObamaCare website fixes

Greg Nash

The White House on Tuesday announced it was dispatching former acting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jeff Zients to counsel the administration team working frantically to salvage the 
ObamaCare website.

The administration said Zients would help lead the project, which will also include experts from Silicon Valley, government contractors and scholars working to fix the technical problems that have dogged the launch of the president’s signature healthcare program.

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Calling in Zients, who is slated to begin work as the director of the National Economic Council at the end of the year, betrays the concern within the West Wing over the website.

Obama is fond of appointing problem-solvers to fix bureaucratic dysfunction and eliminate red tape within his administration.

Earlier this year, he tapped White House budget official Danny Werfel to head the Internal Revenue Service after the agency admitted to political targeting.

After the General Services Administration was found to have wasted taxpayer dollars at lavish conferences, Obama plucked Dan Tangherlini from the Treasury Department to head the agency.

And the president has dispatched Zients in the past to clean up high-profile programs struggling under their own weight. In Obama’s first term, Zients and his team were brought in to expedite delayed GI Bill payments and fix issues with the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program.

Jared Bernstein, the former chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden, said during his time in the Obama administration, Zients proved “particularly good at diagnosing systems problems and figuring out how to fix them.”

“You remember Mr. Wolf from ‘Pulp Fiction?’ ” Bernstein asked, referring to the Harvey Keitel character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, who is brought to help characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta clean up a blood-soaked car.

Obama will need the former corporate executive to work his magic again. 

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed a majority of Americans — 53 percent — disapprove of the way Obama is handling implementation of the new healthcare law. And if the administration is unable to get the website up and running soon, the likelihood of uninsured Americans giving up — or Republicans gaining traction with arguments that ObamaCare is too unwieldy — only increase. 

Current and former administration officials say Zients is up to the task. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Zients had a “proven track record” and would “provide short-term advice, assessments and recommendations” to the team working to iron out the site’s technical glitches.

Zients joined the administration in 2009 as the deputy director for management at the OMB. A private equity and corporate management specialist, Zients twice served as acting budget director and led an effort to reorganize federal agencies to eliminate inefficiencies.

In his role as chief performance officer, Zients led an “Accountable Government Initiative” designed to reform how the government purchased and maintained its information technology services.

Under his direction, the administration in 2010 temporarily halted $3 billion in technology projects in an attempt to reduce costs and improve technology functionality.

Later that year, Zients told the Northern Virginia Technology Council that government IT management “needs to be more agile, more adaptable to new technologies, more accountable and more focused on results.”

“Too often, IT projects are over budget, behind schedule and fail to deliver results,” he added, according to federal technology magazine FCW. “Fixing IT is central to everything we are trying to do. IT is our top priority.”

“It was a stroke of luck that in the bullpen was Jeff Zients,” said Kenneth Baer, a former OMB senior official who is now managing director of The Harbour Group, a D.C. communications firm.

“With his outsider perspective as well as the relationships he has and the trust he has earned from the president and other senior officials, he’s going to be able to come in and say this is what needs to be done, and people will trust that,” Baer said. “You don’t want someone who will only give you good news or be hysterical because things are going wrong.”

But bringing in an outsider to clean up the mess at HHS carries its own risks, and could be seen as a lack of confidence in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Top Republicans, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), have called for her resignation in the aftermath of the launch.

Asked Tuesday if bringing in Zients was an attempt to sideline Sebelius, Carney sidestepped the question. He said the former acting OMB director would be “working alongside HHS’s team.” 

Baer looked to dismiss concerns over a turf war.

“It’s a huge agency. Secretary Sebelius has a whole host of concerns and things that she’s working on,” he said. “The type of delegating, working, 20 hours a day, being in the trenches is not something an agency head can do or should do.”

For Zients, living up to his reputation could prove a massive undertaking. Earlier Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the ObamaCare website was failing basic simulations even before the Oct. 1 launch.

On Tuesday, Bernstein cautioned that Zients is “a problem solver, not a miracle worker.”

“He’s a smart choice, but it’s wrong to create an expectation that anyone could fix this overnight,” Bernstein said.

— This story was originally published at 1:30 p.m. and last updated at 8:27 p.m.