When the Obama administration realized that HealthCare .gov was fundamentally broken rather than merely glitchy, aides called former management consultant Jeff Zients to fix it.
When the White House realized restive congressional Democrats posed a serious threat to the health-care law’s future, the president recalled Phil Schiliro, the White House’s first director of legislative affairs, to safeguard it.
When President Barack Obama realized maybe this whole second-term thing wasn’t going that well, he called in John Podesta, who had served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, to fill a vague, yearlong “counselor” role to help right it.
Obama clearly decided that the people nominally in charge of his signature legislative achievement weren’t up to their jobs. The rescue effort wasn’t led by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), or Marilynn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The legislative outreach isn’t being managed by Rob Nabors, the White House’s former director of legislative affairs who is now a deputy chief of staff, or by Miguel Rodriguez, the current director of legislative affairs.
All of which raises a question: If these people aren’t up to the most important tasks of Obama’s second term, why haven’t they been fired and replaced by people who are?
Though the health insurance website is working vastly better today than it was two months ago, the debut of HealthCare.gov was a genuine disaster. Specifically, it was a management disaster.
The CMS IT department botched its job as systems integrator for HealthCare.gov. The management of CMS botched the job of recognizing the CMS IT department was botching its job. The management of HHS botched the job of recognizing that the management of CMS was botching the job of recognizing that the CMS IT department was botching its job. The management of the White House botched the job of recognizing that the management of HHS was botching its job, and so on.
It wasn’t just the technical challenges of HealthCare.gov that the administration managed poorly. The White House was completely unprepared for the furor over canceled insurance plans; that’s a political problem that Sebelius, a former insurance regulator, should’ve seen coming.
The failures extend beyond the health-care rollout. Obama wanted to nominate Lawrence Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank — or at least wanted the option to do so. But the legislative affairs team failed to muffle dissension among Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee (in fact, it seemed like they failed to even try). Similarly, Obama wanted congressional authorization to strike Syria. But he was on track to lose a vote until a bout of seemingly extemporaneous diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry provided an exit, via trapdoor.
Somewhere in this chain of colossal, consequential screwups, there are surely a few people who deserve to be fired.
The White House tends to dismiss such criticism. Obama aides pride themselves on rising above it, viewing calls for that kind of action as politically motivated or, when proffered by administration allies, derived from a crude desire for retribution. There might, at times, be truth to that. But firing and replacing underperforming staff is also a key element of effective management.
It’s possible the White House is waiting until the health-care law is stabilized before seriously reassessing personnel. But at some point, Obama needs to recognize that temporary staffing and stopgap solutions are insufficient. His second term, so far, has been broken rather than simply glitchy. He needs to fix it.
Ezra Klein is a columnist at the Washington Post. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system.