A perfect storm of blunders, broken promises and rebellion in his own party over Obamacare is raising doubts about whether President Obama can recover from the monthlong debacle to govern effectively in his second term.
The inept rollout of the entitlement program and increasing skepticism that it will ever work as promised have prompted Democratic strategist Garry South to label the affair “Obama’s Katrina,” a reference to the bungled hurricane relief effort that permanently undermined the credibility of President George W. Bush in his second term.
Not quite a year into his second term, Mr. Obama’s job approval rating has fallen to its lowest point ever. On Friday, one in five House Democrats voted against the president and in favor of a Republican bill that would make good on Mr. Obama’s broken pledge that Americans could keep their health insurance plans if they like them.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to recover from this,” James Capretta, a public policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said of the Obama administration. “Katrina was terrible, and it took months and months for the story to recede from the public’s mind, but this could last even longer. This potentially could be worse for President Obama.”
While some Democrats concede that the administration has botched the rollout, they say it is misguided and in poor taste to compare the floundering program to a natural disaster that killed more than 1,000 people and devastated entire communities.
“President Obama may be underwater, but this is no Katrina moment,” said Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a native of Louisiana. “Find another metaphor. This has nothing to do with Katrina.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” former White House senior adviser David Plouffe rejected the comparison, suggesting the president could recover quickly if progress is made on a budget or other pressing issues.
“We could be in a much different place three or four months from now,” he said. “The story could change.”
But since Obamacare’s unveiling Oct. 1, the administration has yet to turn the corner on the bad news. Revelations about website malfunctions have given way to discoveries of widespread cancellations of insurance policies and reports of fraudulent enrollment practices.
The administration has even started to backtrack on its promise that the HealthCare.gov website will be running smoothly by the end of this month, a goal that officials view as essential to making the program work.
With Obamacare’s coverage set to take effect Jan. 1, time is running out for the administration to fix the problems, said David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. He said the dilemma has highlighted shortcomings of Mr. Obama and his inner circle in their abilities to govern.
“Clearly, the White House staff has struggled,” Mr. Cohen said. “And President Obama has been rather insular.”
The weekly display of the administration’s ineptitude on Obamacare is raising questions about the president’s ability to get his agenda back on track on immigration reform, climate change legislation, gun control and other issues. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said complications with the health care law’s implementation have not distracted the president from his second-term goals.
“I think he’s going to do it by waking up every day and focusing on addressing the concerns that the American people have, that they want their elected leaders here in Washington to focus on,” Mr. Carney said. “And that means in this case making the Affordable Care Act deliver on its promise, deliver the benefits that it will provide, when implemented, to millions and millions of Americans.”
Mr. Cohen said the president could reverse the downward trajectory of his second term by scoring a big accomplishment in foreign policy, such as the unfinished talks on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
But even on the foreign policy front, developments this year have included setbacks, including the ceaseless international uproar over Edward Snowden’s spying revelations and the rising tensions in the Middle East, from Syria to Egypt.
Mr. Capretta, a former Bush administration official who focuses on health care policy, said there are likely more problems to come with Obamacare because relatively healthy people will be reluctant to enroll for coverage they don’t need. He also said Mr. Obama’s proposed “fix” for people whose policies were canceled — calling on insurers and state officials to restore substandard plans for one year — isn’t a workable solution.
“I thought it was completely lawless,” Mr. Capretta said. “They’re just making it up as they go. They’re just saying essentially, ‘These plans are still illegal under our law, but we’ll let them happen anyway.’ It’s not really a way to run a country. They really should be working with the Congress to do a legislative fix.”
Ms. Brazile said the politics of the situation won’t change “until the policy is fully understood and implemented without malfeasance by those simply opposed.”
“Once the website is properly working and folks who need access feel more comfortable accessing, the president will have to demonstrate how this new federal program will help those who need it as well as those who might not want it,” she said. “Can the insurance companies do the same? Can Republicans explain why they want people without [insurance] to keep showing up at the emergency room when they get sick?”