By Amie Parnes - 10/30/13 06:00 AM EDT
An agitated President Obama has expressed frustration to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the faulty ObamaCare enrollment website.
A visibly annoyed Obama behind closed doors has made clear to Sebelius that it’s her responsibility to fix what has become an unwanted second-term blunder, according to senior administration officials.
In the words of one senior administration official, “She’s in a tough spot. She’s on the hook.”
Sebelius is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday amid a sea of negative press.
She has been lambasted by Republicans and even parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” opening sketch.
Senior officials maintain that Obama is sticking with Sebelius.
“She has his full support,” White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview.
“They have a good relationship, one of mutual respect,” which has “developed over time,” Jarrett said.
Obama has a reputation for sticking by Cabinet officials who get in trouble.
When Attorney General Eric Holder was held in contempt by the House for his role in the “Fast and Furious” gun tracking controversy, Obama defended him. He did so again when Holder was criticized for secretly subpoenaing The Associated Press’s phone records.
Those close to Obama say the president is taking the long view and feels that Sebelius is also responsible for positive aspects of the law that have gone well.
“The president isn’t looking for a scalp to win the news cycle,” one senior administration official said.
One former senior administration official added: “The way he sees it is, ‘Does this one problem negate four or five years of good work?’ ”
“It speaks to his overall governing philosophy, which is to play the long game, the one people will remember,” the former official added. “While he knows this is a major problem, he knows it can be a bit of an overreaction.”
Whether mounting criticism and pressure on Sebelius changes that calculation remains to be seen.
“If Secretary Sebelius worked for a private company, she would have been done weeks ago,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, which has set up a “Fire Sebelius” movement.
One problem with sacking Sebelius is that it would likely be difficult to get a new Health and Human Services secretary confirmed by the Senate.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean surmised that the White House would “probably never get another replacement through Senate confirmation.”
“The White House strategy is to use Sebelius as a political piñata and a symbol of incompetence while they desperately try to conduct damage control and fix the problems of Obama-Care,” he said.
Obama has kept a good working relationship with Sebelius, who he courted for his administration because of her “outstanding” reputation as Kansas’s insurance commissioner.
“I remember she was high on his list for people he wanted to recruit in the administration,” one senior administration official said, adding that she had her own credentials in the field.
He is very much aware that Sebelius — a female governor from a red state — took a risk to support him early on in his heated primary battle with Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Those close to the president recall it being a bold move and one that meant a lot to Obama.
“I think he is loyal by nature,” Jarrett said. “He is loyal to all the people who have been a part of his team.”
But these days, with no end in sight to the website’s issues, Obama has been anything but shy about the way he feels. And he has spent considerable time with Sebelius—who has regularly been in the West Wing — and others in meetings in trying to fix the problem.
“His management style isn’t to berate people,” one senior administration official said. “It’s to make people do better. It’s not just directed at Kathleen; it’s directed at everybody.”
He had made clear, according to aides, that he would like Sebelius to stay on while the website issues are resolved.
“She and the team will get this done,” one senior administration official said, without predicting how long that might take.