By Jules Witcover
3:02 PM EDT, October 24, 2013
In some important ways, the last month or so has seen some impressive advances for President Barack Obama. Under ordinary circumstances, his success so far at staring down Syrian dictator Bashar Assad over chemical weapons and then his rebuff of the House Republicans' demand to defund his health-care insurance law would be recognized as political triumphs.
Instead, the president finds himself on the defensive because of the botched rollout of "Obamacare." Ironically, the earliest indications that enrollment for the insurance was not going smoothly were overshadowed by the dismal and reckless effort of the law's bitter foes to kill it.
The tea party-driven decision to hold the executive branch hostage by balking at passing a budget and raising the federal debt limit was a classic case of stepping on one's own most advantageous story — the technological failure of the Obamacare rollout.
Only now is that fiasco receiving the sort of wide public and press attention that, had it occurred just a bit earlier, might have fueled a more successful drive to defund the law. In another irony, the folks who endlessly decried Obamacare are now the loudest complainers that would-be applicants are being stymied in their attempts to enroll in it. Little is being said of the avalanche of Americans that has overwhelmed the admittedly inadequate system to handle the load.
For all that, the greatest political danger for Mr. Obama may be reinforcing a nagging complaint against the first-term senator now in the White House: that his inexperience made him ill-prepared for the immense managerial challenges of the presidency.
Throughout Mr. Obama's first term, even members of his party criticized him for an alleged incompetence in dealing with Congress — a naive effort to do business with a solidly obstructionist opposition after promising to change the way Washington worked.
While some Democrats sought to compare Mr. Obama to the revered John Kennedy for his undeniable personal appeal and intellectual strengths, critics painted a closer comparison to Jimmy Carter, whose own unfamiliarity with the ways of Washington was an early formula for stumbling.
In Mr. Carter's first months in the Oval Office, the former one-term governor of Georgia ran into a buzz saw of congressional opposition in an ill-advised effort to kill water projects in several Western states. President Carter finally had to back off amid complaints of amateurism at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The early impression of Mr. Carter's incompetence dragged on in his presidency, and was capped by other domestic gaffes including an embarrassing policy soul-searching at Camp David in which he summoned a parade of kibitzers, only to blame his woes on a lack of public self-confidence.
Even more destructive to Mr. Carter was the failed military effort to rescue American diplomats and aides held hostage for more than a year in Iran. Not even his superb orchestration at Camp David of an historic peace treaty between the leaders of Egypt and Israel managed to erase the image of an American president in political water over his head. It all ended in his landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
President Obama, however, managed to muddle through in his first term despite the intense Republican opposition and was re-elected in 2012, albeit against a much weaker Republican nominee in Mitt Romney. What remains at stake for Mr. Obama is his chance for success in his remaining three White House years. His legacy may largely depend on the ultimate success or failure of the health-care insurance law to which his name has been so sarcastically attached by his bitter foes.
The president has joined the chorus of criticism of the Obamacare rollout, acknowledging "there's no excuse for the problems" while promising "they are being fixed." He cannot do otherwise, while hoping his optimism proves to be well founded. It would be greatest irony if the prime legislative achievement of the Obama presidency turned out to be trumped by wide perceptions of bureaucratic incompetence on his watch.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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