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John Feehery: Barack’s blunder

Greg Nash

So, was it worth it?

Every president asks this question about a major decision he’s made that backfired. For George W. Bush, it was the Iraq War. For Ronald Reagan, it was Iran-Contra. For Richard Nixon, Watergate. For Lyndon Johnson, it was Vietnam. 

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For President Obama, his work to enact the Affordable Care Act is his chief blunder. 

The deadline has now passed for American citizens to sign up for ObamaCare without getting hit with a tax penalty. To make the law workable, it was estimated that 7 million people had to sign up. The administration struggled to get 6 million enrolled, and it is unclear how many of those actually needed the help. 

Put into a larger historical context, there are six reasons why this law will be seen as a failure.

Bad timing: It was the president’s former chief of staff (now Chicago mayor) Rahm Emanuel who once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” No doubt, Obama faced a serious financial crisis, when he took office in 2009. But focusing on healthcare when the jobless rate was climbing above 10 percent was a stupendous misdirection of attention, akin to focusing on his neighbors’ unkempt lawn when his house is on fire. 

Bad process: The Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate flexed their parliamentary muscles to jam through ObamaCare, but the final result was a partisan power play that polarized the nation. The Senate majority leader had to use reconciliation, a procedure normally reserved for budget bills, to get the necessary votes to pass the conference report. Not one Senate Republican voted for the bill, the first time a major new entitlement program has been passed on straight partisan lines. 

Bad policy: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” Nancy Pelosi famously said about the president’s healthcare law. The bitter reality for Democrats is that most Americans still don’t have a good handle on what the law entails. Unlike Social Security or Medicare, ObamaCare is not easily understandable. The mandates, the exchanges, the deadlines, the websites, the regulations all confuse, mystify and anger constituents. A law that is un-understandable is a law that will fail in the long term.

Bad implementation: It is hard to implement major pieces of legislation. Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, even Social Security had glitches early on in the implementation process. But the Affordable Care Act’s ultimate success was uniquely tied to its initial rollout, given its dependence on enrollment numbers to make the insurance markets work. If not enough people sign up, the premiums will be too high for average Americans to afford. And the rollout was a complete disaster. The fact that Team Obama, which had won election and reelection with a model of high-tech efficiency, couldn’t get this website to work was remarkable. And it has proven to be deadly to ObamaCare. 

 Bad constitutional provisions: The constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is questionable at best. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts had to change the law to magically make the mandate a tax so that it passed muster. A provision to make all employers give their employees free birth control will probably be thrown out by the same court later this year. 

Bad politics: Ever since Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in the Massachusetts special election in 2010, when ObamaCare was a primary issue, it has proved to be toxic to those who voted for it, especially in toss-up races. In 2010, the revolt against the Affordable Care Act gave Republicans a historic election triumph in the House. In 2012, when ObamaCare was not front and center, and when Republicans improbably nominated a candidate for president who had enacted an ObamaCare-like law of his own — taking the issue off the table — Obama was able to win reelection. But in 2014, this issue will come back with a vengeance, as the law’s failed implementation will be fresh in the minds of voters. 

It seems that every president over the last five decades has made one key miscalculation that has hurt his presidential legacy. ObamaCare will be known as Barack’s blunder.  

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

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