More damaging news for Obama on Obamacare. Can he rebound? (+video)

A consultant warned the Obama administration in March that Obamacare's HealthCare.gov was in trouble, a document released Monday shows. As the drumbeat of bad news continues, here's what experts say Obama should do to pull out of a second-term tailspin.

By , Staff writer

If President Obama wants to feel better about his sinking job approval, he need only look down Pennsylvania Avenue: Congress is down to 9 percent, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. That makes Mr. Obama’s 38 percent approval rating in the same poll look downright robust.

But as the clock ticks toward Nov. 30, when the Obama administration promised to have HealthCare.gov working smoothly for the “vast majority” of consumers, the negative headlines continue. Now, the White House acknowledges, 1 in 5 will still not be able to sign up for health insurance on the website by the end of the month, though only in part for technical reasons.

And on Monday night, House Republicans released a document indicating that consultants warned the Obama administration as early as March that the development of HealthCare.gov was in serious trouble. A White House spokesman notes that while this document, a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., is new to the public, the point that the administration had advance warning of problems isn’t.

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Still, "nobody anticipated the size and scope of the problems we experienced once the site launched,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. 

And the jury is still out on whether Obama’s “fix” to the Affordable Care Act – allowing insurers to extend canceled health policies for a year – will take away the sting from being caught falsely promising that people would be able to keep their old health plans under his reform.

The “second-term blues” narrative is running full steam ahead. Late-night comics are in pig heaven.

But Obama isn’t helpless. There are measures he can take right now to boost his cause, including these:

Staff changes. Political analysts are divided on whether Obama still needs to fire someone. Seven weeks after HealthCare.gov’s troubled launch, the moment for that may have passed. But there’s agreement that bringing in some new faces – and breaking up the White House’s image for being insular –would help him make a fresh start.

“My sense is that he has to expand the circle a bit, and bring in some gray-hairs,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “He has to give certain people primary responsibility for some of this stuff – there’s the accountability factor.”

In fact, Mr. Fenn would like to see a series of mini “war rooms” in the White House to address the range of issues, including health reform, immigration, and budget negotiations.

“The idea of bringing in a heavy hitter is always a good idea,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The obvious person to have fired was Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, but the time has passed, says Mr. Jillson. “It might have been unfair, but you look like you did something definitive, and that buys you a little time.”

Former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs still believes that some heads need to roll.  

“If this were to happen in the private sector, somebody would have probably already lost their job,” Mr. Gibbs said Monday on “The Today Show.” “And I think the only way to restore ultimate confidence in going forward, is to make sure that whoever was in charge of this, isn’t in charge of the long-term health care plan.”

The list of possible eminences to ride herd on Obamacare is long, starting with three former Clinton chiefs of staff – John Podesta, Erskine Bowles, and Leon Panetta (who has already served Obama as CIA director and Defense secretary). There’s also former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who was Obama’s original choice to run HHS, before some unpaid taxes came to light.   

Lower expectations. The White House and HHS have already started doing this by saying that HealthCare.gov will work for 80 percent of customers by Nov. 30. That’s the Obama administration’s definition of “vast majority,” which was the original promise for functionality by Jeffrey Zients, the management expert brought in on Oct. 25 to oversee the site’s repairs.

Maybe now HHS should drop the “vast majority” part and stick with 80 percent. At the White House briefing Monday, press secretary Jay Carney broke down the remaining 20 percent into three groups: those who will still encounter technical problems; those who are uncomfortable using a computer to buy insurance; and those with complicated family situations who cannot determine their eligibility for a subsidy on the website.

Focus on other issues. Obamacare may be the president’s signature policy initiative, but he has plenty of other issues on his plate. Job creation is one, with unemployment still high at 7.3 percent. Immigration reform is another, and while prospects are slim, there’s no down side in looking eager to move while painting Republicans as uncooperative.  

Then there’s the budget. Conferees face a Dec. 13 deadline to come up with a deal, including a long-term blueprint; government funding runs out on Jan. 15, at which point there could be another shutdown. Republican leaders have offered assurances that won’t happen, but nothing is certain in polarized Washington.

Obama has, in fact, been doing events centered on issues other than health reform. On Oct. 24, he did an immigration reform event at the White House. On Nov. 8, he traveled to the port of New Orleans to focus on exports. He spoke about manufacturing at a steel plant in Cleveland on Nov. 14. During a Nov. 6 trip to Dallas, the focus was health care – but as much on pressuring Texas to expand Medicaid as on encouraging people to shop for insurance on HealthCare.gov.

Even if the national media are focused single-mindedly on the Obamacare mess, teeing up other topics can’t hurt. At least Obama can’t be accused of hunkering down at the White House.  

In the meantime, the Obama administration is “just going to have to slog it through and fix the website,” says Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary.

That, in turn, could help solve the problem of angry people with cancellation letters. Once HealthCare.gov is fixed, people may discover they can get a better deal in the marketplace. 

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