WASHINGTON — An IT problem has never escalated faster than the president’s Rose Garden speech this week addressing the problems with healthcare.gov. He could no longer outsource responding to user complaints. At first, the White House had said the headaches signing people up for health care coverage were just technical glitches, but now the sheer number of those glitches defies that explanation. Reporting about deeper systemic problems suggest that fixes will not come quickly. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias explains, adding more bodies to the problem adds more complexity, which may exacerbate the problem. It’s hard to untangle Christmas lights by committee.
Barack Obama doesn’t like to play the action-hero president where the application of his overwhelming will is supposed to directly correlate with a snappy solution. There are too many constraints on the presidency — Congress, a fickle public, world leaders, a $17 trillion economy and the vagaries of time and space. But with the botched Obamacare rollout, the president was applying all the rhetorical torque he could muster. “Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should,” Obama said on Monday, “which means it’s going to get fixed.”
Rhetoric and will isn’t going to solve this problem. That helped the president triumph over the government shutdown and debt limit crisis, when through determination and superior political positioning he out maneuvered his Republican opponents. Now he has a different kind of challenge — an operational challenge — where his talent for politics and persuasion are less useful and may even make matters worse. Putting a good spin on things only sets expectations that can then be dashed by reality.
More than any other domestic challenge, his administration should have been able to anticipate the problems they’re now scrambling to fix.