“A fellow very friendly to the administration, a longtime supporter, cornered me at a holiday party recently to ask, with true perplexity: “How could any president put his entire reputation on the line with a program and not be on the phone every day pushing people and making sure it will work? Do you know of any president who wouldn’t do that?” I couldn’t think of one, and it’s the same question I’d been asking myself. The questioner had been the manager of a great institution, a high stakes 24/7 operation with a lot of moving parts. He knew Murphy’s law—if it can go wrong, it will. Managers—presidents—have to obsess, have to put the fear of God, as Mr. Obama says, into those below them in the line of authority. They don’t have to get down in the weeds every day but they have to know there are weeds, and that things get caught in them. It’s a leader’s job… to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful. And this president wasn’t.”
—-Former Reagan muse and current pundit Peggy Noonan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Low-Information Leadership.”
This is, of course, rank incompetence, but worse than that, it is arrogant, willful, shocking and frightening incompetence. It gives me no pleasure to say that I saw the signs of this years ago, for years ago there was reason to be hopeful. Presidents learn, most of them, anyway. This one, without any experience to speak of in governing, management, leadership or even organizational process, not only hasn’t learned, but has never shown the slightest recognition that he has anything to learn.
The nation, like a crippled ship without a captain, is adrift in a way that it hasn’t experienced since President Franklin Pierce, with the country falling apart around him, sat depressed and drinking in the White House, barely able to function after seeing his young son decapitated before his eyes and witnessing the emotional unraveling of his grief-stricken wife (who seldom left her room and spent her lucid moments writing letters to the spirit of her headless son) in the aftermath. At least poor Pierce had an excuse, and mercifully, he was only in office four years.
President Obama has no excuse, and while no civil war is brewing, the consequences of his resolute non-leadership are just beginning to be felt. The health care fiasco is just an indicator of the vast chaos elsewhere, but it is an ominous one. From Reuters (emphasis mine):
The healthcare program faces a critical test to enroll hundreds of thousands of people by December 23, the deadline for people who need insurance coverage starting on January 1, 2014. Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for CMS, said the government will make the payments to insurers for premium tax credits and cost sharing on time. “We are committed to making sure they get paid in January and we will continue to work with them on that process,” she told reporters. The administration is planning a “workaround” for payments, said Daniel Durham, vice president for policy and regulatory affairs at America’s Health Insurance Plans. Health plans will estimate how much they are owed, and submit that estimate to the government. Once the system is built, the government and insurers can reconcile the payments made with the plan data to “true up” payments, he said. “The intent is to make sure plans get paid on time, which is a good thing,” Durham told Reuters. The fix puts an additional “burden” on insurance companies, already taxed by having to double-check faulty enrollment data from the HealthCare.gov system. Now, companies need to quickly put together financial management systems to make the payment estimates, so they can be paid beginning in January, he said. “They have to recognize that plans are already quite stressed and introducing this at the last minute just adds substantial burden for plans to deal with,” Durham said. Paying insurers on time and accurately is critical for the long-term competitiveness of Obamacare marketplaces, said Kevin Lucia, senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. “I’m pretty deeply concerned about this,” Lucia said at a forum organized by the university and law firm Arent Fox. Some large insurance carriers could “cushion” delayed payments for a short period of time, said Lucia, a former CMS official. But that’s not the case for a group of co-ops and smaller insurance providers.
All the desperate White House and MSNBC spin aside, isn’t it clear what’s happening? This is like the crew of Apollo 13, desperately improvising in flight to at least get the crippled space vehicle back to Earth without killing everyone on board. But NASA and the crew knew their spacecraft inside and out; it wasn’t a haphazard, untested conglomeration of devices, regulations, pay-offs and unproven assumptions, described in 2000 pages of bureaucratic gobbledygook that nobody read or could read, and even then, the fact that the astronauts survived was as much luck as anything else. The ACA was far from a carefully engineered structure, but we were guaranteed that it would fly, and that it was safe. All those promises, all those exhortations of trust, all those optimistic projections (what good are the Congressional Budget Office’s fanciful calculations about cost-savings from Obamacare now, as the mechanisms are being improvised daily, and expenses are already exceeding expectations?), all those intentionally misleading assurances, and all that time to plan, prepare and do this with the competence and care that the management of such a vast project was obligated to demonstrate, and this is where we are? Here’s Noonan again:
“I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.”
The President, however, seems to think that the only problem with the law is the miserably designed website, or he is, again, lying. How can he still talk about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act when its terms, deadlines, provisions and operations are being altered. legally and extra-legally, as he speaks? Which Affordable Care Act? What will be its features next week? What “workarounds” will be floated then?
“And when you apply this to the ObamaCare debacle, suddenly it seems to make sense. The White House is so unformed and chaotic that they probably didn’t ignore the problem, they probably held a million meetings on it. People probably said things like, “We’re experiencing some technological challenges but we’re sure we’ll be up by October,” and other people said, “Yes, it’s important we launch strong,” and others said, “The Republicans will have a field day if we’re not.” And then everyone went to their next meeting. And no one did anything. And the president went off and made speeches. Because the doing isn’t that important, the talking is.”
The smoking gun evidence of leadership and management incompetence is this: nobody, not a single person, has been fired as a consequence of the ACA’s unforgivable state. Just as Noonan and her unnamed friend can’t imagine another President ignoring the management of his own crucial initiative until it started falling apart in chunks, it is unimaginable that an engaged, competent President, indeed any competent leader, CEO, manager, or owner of a small town bakery, would fail to dictate extensive personnel changes swiftly and ostentatiously after a fiasco like this. Yet, incredibly, this is how our nation is being led.
This is incompetence.
It is unforgivable, it is indefensible, and it is undeniable.
And it is terrifying.