One of the great ironies of last week's budget debacle that left Republicans in such an internal disarray is that if party moderates had prevailed weeks earlier and the GOP had not pushed the nation into a government shutdown and the brink of insolvency, it might be President Barack Obama and the Democrats looking up from the lower rung of public opinion polls today.
That's because nearly lost in the drama of the disastrous budget debacle was the administration's own disaster — the online health insurance marketplace that has proved so buggy, slow and difficult to use in its first few weeks that most visitors have been stymied from even opening an account. Rarely has such a highly anticipated website as HealthCare.gov proven to be such an epic failure; one can just imagine the graduate school theses (in business, public policy and computer science at least) that will one day spring forth to dissect what went wrong.
President Obama admitted on Monday that he is frustrated, too, and promised that experts are working hard around the clock to fix the problem. But he was also vague on exactly how it happened and defensive about the program itself — using most of his Rose Garden appearance to extol the virtues of the Affordable Care Act and remind people that they can always use off-line resources (call centers or local "navigators") to sign up.
While all those points are valid, it's unfortunate that Obamacare has become so politically polarizing that Mr. Obama believes he can't be a little more transparent about the problem. The administration has not, for instance, even released figures about how many have signed up for insurance through the federally-run website to date. That alone flunks Post-Tylenol Scare Public Relations 101 — the lesson learned from the 1982 tampering incident that providing the public with the maximum information possible during a crisis is the best policy.
He probably also ought to have set a timetable for fixing the problem and perhaps even committed to delaying certain deadlines and perhaps even the effective date of the individual mandate if the problem persists past a certain point. While it's early yet — essentially, three weeks into a six-month "open enrollment" period — there are concerns that, at least in theory, this may come to a point where people miss deadlines (Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage by Jan. 1, for instance) through no real fault of their own.
The federal government isn't the only culprit in this, of course. State-based exchanges have struggled as well. In Maryland, for instance, the "Maryland Health Connection" had signed up fewer than 2,400 households as of last Friday, compared to the stated goal of 150,000 by next March — about average for state exchanges. But give them high marks for transparency; Maryland officials have at least provided regular updates of progress so far. The problem here and in the federal site appears to stem from the combination of unexpectedly high initial interest and the complex nature of the work the website must be designed to do, involving multiple databases and numerous insurance companies with complex variations in plans and eligibility requirements. Yet government procurement rules didn't necessarily attract bidders with cutting-edge expertise in website development.
Still, much of the criticism appears to be off the mark. Those who complain that such web sites are developed routinely are simply wrong. It's far easier to sell shoes, video games and the like and to handle credit card data and shipping information than it is to verify whether someone is eligible for subsidies based on an analysis tax data, immigration status and other factors for everyone in the household. Nor are private insurance plans quite as simple as books. Moreover, the website problems don't show Obamacare is a failure so much as of victim of its own success — the federal site alone has gotten more then 20 million visitors, an overwhelming number by any standard, and this is likely because people desire insurance, not because they don't.
Finally, the ultimate irony is that Republicans have become the worst possible critics of any of this. They are people who are so dead-set against the Affordable Care Act — as Mr. Obama observed, opposing it has become a "signature" position for the GOP, perhaps the only principle that holds the party together these days — that they have zero credibility on the subject. But that doesn't mean the president should spend his time putting a political spin on the issue. Instead, he should put the facts on the table and let people decide. So far, there are genuine reasons to be concerned about the on-line exchanges. They need to be fixed, and in the meantime, the government needs to develop a Plan B in case they aren't.