How Obama arrived at his 'I feel your pain' moment on Obamacare

At his press conference Thursday, President Obama not only announced a potential reprieve in insurance cancellations, but also offered a window into the frustrations he's experienced in recent weeks.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama speaks about his signature health care law, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.

In a lot of ways, being president of the United States is pretty cool. You get your own plane, a mansion, and an enormous household staff. Your motorcade doesn’t have to stop at red lights. And when you retire, you can command more money just giving speeches than you’ll ever need.

But there are times when it’s not hard to imagine the president saying, “Take this job ...”

Consider the fiasco known as the rollout of The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the signature initiative of Barack Obama’s presidency. It’s his baby. And at the moment of truth – the Oct. 1 launch of the website that serves as the portal to the ACA’s new insurance market – it crashed upon takeoff. Even now, the prospects for smooth functioning by Nov. 30, as promised by top officials, aren’t looking good.

Then there’s that promise Mr. Obama kept making over and over again – that under his health-insurance reform, “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” Except, oops, that turned out not to be true for the more than 3 million Americans who have received cancellation notices.

At his press conference Thursday, in which Obama announced a major concession – insurers can offer people their old plans for another year – he also offered a window into the frustrations he has experienced over the past few weeks.

Perhaps nothing can compare with the embarrassment that Obama surely felt when made its ignominious debut, leading to questions about what he knew beforehand and when he knew it. News reports have indicated that high-level White House people were given a heads-up in mid-September that the site had problems.

When asked, Obama said he “was not informed directly” that the site would not be working as it was supposed to.

“You know, I'm accused of a lot of things,” Obama told reporters. “But I don't think I'm stupid enough to go around saying, this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity, a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn't going to work.”

Even a week after the launch, he said, “the thinking was that these were some glitches that would be fixed with patches,” instead of the broader systemic problems that were found. Those have taken much longer to fix and are still being worked on.

On the “keep your plan” promise, Obama’s confessional moment continued Thursday, as he turned “we” into “I.”

“You have an individual market that accounts for about 5 percent of the population,” he said. “And our working assumption was – my working assumption was – that the majority of those folks would find better policies at lower cost or the same cost in the marketplaces.”

For those who might not find a better deal in the marketplaces, he continued, the idea was that the “grandfather clause” – the provision of the law that allowed plans in place before the ACA passed to continue – would work “sufficiently.” But it didn’t.

“And again, that’s on us,” Obama said, “which is why we’re – that’s on me.”

“And that's why I'm trying to fix it,” he continued. “And as I said earlier ... that's something I deeply regret, because it's scary getting a cancellation notice.”

It was a “feel your pain” moment reminiscent of former President Clinton, who, as it happened, helped to back Obama into the corner he was trying to get out of. Two days ago, the news website Ozy released an interview with Mr. Clinton, in which he said Obama should keep his promise and make sure Americans can keep their health plans if they want to.

Obama also felt the pain of fellow Democrats, some of whom face a tough reelection battle next year.

“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin,” he said.

“And I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place.”

While he was letting it all out, Obama also went after the federal procurement system for technology, an arcane area of government that has come in for heavy blame amid’s woes.

“How we purchase technology in the federal government is cumbersome, complicated, and outdated,” he said.

Unlike in his successful presidential campaigns, where he could gather top technology minds with relative ease, it doesn’t work that way once you’re the head of the executive branch.  

“If you're doing it at the federal government level, you're going through 40 pages of specs and this and that and the other, and there are all kinds of laws involved, and it makes it more difficult,” Obama said. “It's part of the reason why, chronically, federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule.”

The president looked ahead to the “Monday morning quarterbacking” he would do on himself over, suggesting that he should have seen the problems coming.

“Two years ago, as we were thinking about this, we might have done more to make sure that we were breaking the mold on how we were going to be setting this up,” Obama said. “But that doesn't help us now. We've got to move forward.”

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