In the Obama White House these days, the buck stops somewhere — anywhere — below the president.
White House aides insisted Wednesday that President Obama wasn’t told about major problems with the Obamacare website before its failed launch, adding to the growing list of blunders in which his advisers allegedly have kept him in the dark.
As the president summoned a dozen top health insurance executives to the White House for a meeting on salvaging his signature initiative, administration officials said nobody in Mr. Obama’s inner circle had any inkling of how bad the federal website for HealthCare.gov would be until it went live Oct. 1.
“We expected hiccups and glitches,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “We did not expect or anticipate the scale of the problems that has occurred.”
Yet project developers for the health care website have said they raised doubts whether it could be ready in time. Congressional investigators have concluded that the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tested the exchange’s computer systems during the final weeks, a task usually handled by software companies to make sure it’s ready for consumers.
Critics see a familiar pattern in the president’s “plausible deniability” of the website’s problems, along with the Internal Revenue Service’s suspected targeting of conservative groups, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal in the Justice Department, and the unanswered questions about his handling of the lethal terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012. Whatever the scandal, the administration’s explanation is that Mr. Obama was out of the loop, deliberately or otherwise.
Skeptics also said the idea that Mr. Obama failed to keep tabs on the rollout of what is considered his signature legislative achievement also is implausible.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said Mr. Obama became aware “in the first couple of days” after the website launch that there were serious problems with its operation. She said they discussed testing the system “going forward,” but not before Oct. 1.
Mrs. Sebelius said that, even though insurance companies complained about the website and it crashed during a test, nobody told Mr. Obama about the problems.
Administration officials have refused to say how many people have managed to enroll for insurance during the three weeks since the marketplaces became available. Mr. Carney said Wednesday that the number is “in the thousands.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 7 million people would gain coverage during the exchanges’ first year.
The assertion by top administration aides that Mr. Obama was shielded from bad news about the Obamacare website is reminiscent of the IRS scandal that erupted this spring.
When White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler heard April 24 about an upcoming inspector general’s report on the Internal Revenue Service’s improper targeting of conservative groups, she and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides agreed not to share it with Mr. Obama until the audit was completed and made public. They said they acted to protect the president from any appearance of trying to influence the investigation.
When word spread at the highest levels of government about CIA Director David H. Petraeus having an extramarital affair, top-level Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., learned of the scandal — with the potential for blackmail of the nation’s top spy — in midsummer of 2012. But Mr. Obama wasn’t told about it until Nov. 8, two days after his re-election.
The Republican National Committee sent out a missive Wednesday saying Mr. Obama also claimed not to know about the Justice Department’s subpoenaing of news organizations and the Solyndra solar-energy debacle, asking, “Does he have a staff problem or are they covering for him?”
Even though officials knew about the website’s problems and the crashing in tests, Mr. Obama delivered an emphatic speech about the program’s launch Oct. 1 in the White House Rose Garden, coincidentally the first day of the government shutdown prompted in large part by Republican opposition to Obamacare.
Although insurance executives were called to the White House on Wednesday to discuss fixing problems with Obamacare, Mr. Obama himself didn’t drop in on the meeting. Mr. McDonough, Mrs. Sebelius and senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett attended the meeting “to discuss open enrollment and ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” the White House said.
Among the problems they discussed were inaccurate enrollment files that are sent to the insurers selling health care plans through the exchanges.