In terms of public perception, President Barack Obama has reached the self-inflicted low point of his presidency with the Affordable Care Act. Its logistical failings, coupled with the administration's poor messaging, have turned his signature achievement into an albatross for vulnerable Democrats in next year's midterm elections.
The list of mistakes in recent weeks is seemingly endless. First, the website didn't work, so those who wanted to purchase insurance were unable to do so. Then the administration appeared defensive and avoided releasing registration statistics – it later turned out that the numbers fell far short of goals. Then news came out that the President's promise of “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” was not entirely true.
In the meantime, the President has set a November 30 date to have the website fixed – a promise he may be unable to keep. His announcement last week about allowing insurance companies to continue offering old individual plans may throw a wrench into the act's market viability.
This is a defining moment in the Obama presidency – and he must act now to stop the bleeding.
First, the President needs to take command of logistics. The Affordable Care Act is his signature achievement. It is head scratching that he was not paying attention to the mechanics of the situation before things began to unravel on October 1. General Norman Schwarzkopf masterfully planned out the Iraq invasion in 1991, knowing that the greatest strategy in the world is useless if you cannot execute. If the person to help him take the reins is not Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, then he needs to put someone in charge and make them accountable for the law's implementation. Then he needs to manage that person effectively.
Second, the President needs to shoot straight with the public. His press conference last week was a good start, but if promises continue to be broken and Obama looks defensive he will continue to hemorrhage support and lose the ability to govern.
Finally, he needs to project confidence and reassure the public that he can be trusted to pull this off. The act's failings play into the hands of Republicans who argue that the government is too incompetent to run things effectively. The President will need tangible improvements and fixes in the Affordable Care Act to point to as evidence, but he must stay strong and appear to be in control of the situation.
Time will tell if Obamacare will be a disaster similar to Iran Contra or a success such as Medicare or Social Security. Given the President's ability to grind out a tough re-election and win other hard fought victories, there is ample evidence to suggest that he has what it takes to make this work. One thing is certain: the nation's eyes are on him.Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.