Larry Summers: How to Learn from the Obamacare Fiasco


Lawrence Summers put pen to paper on the subject of the Affordable Care Act for the Washington Post on Sunday. Summers, a Harvard professor who served as President Barack Obama’s economic adviser from 2009 to 2010, did not hold back from critiquing his former boss or politicians seeking to capitalize on the failures of the health care law’s rollout. 

Summers expressed disappointment with the debut of the website, through which people can shop and select health care plans. “It is tragic to be falling short on the mundane task of enrolling Americans in health-care exchanges,” Summers writes. No “objective observers” can see the November 30 deadline for a fully functioning site as “a certainty,” and because of this episode “a shadow has been cast on the federal government’s competence.”

Finding silver linings in the website storm cloud, Summers explained that there are teachable moments from this episode. When implementing a large program, there needs to be clear accountability, and “frequent checkpoints” and oversight must be assigned to knowledgable people, Summers said. Information technology gurus would have made better overseers to the site, according to Summers, than general managers.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, “there are a couple of hundred functional fixes that have been identified” for the website.

Summers writes that the implementors of such programs need a dash of realism and to hold steady, even when the unexpected occurs. That being said, too much optimism is not a solution when experiencing defeat — it will be forgiven in the first instance, but a constant barrage of “over-optimism should not and will not be excused,” Summers said in the Post.

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, a regular Washington Post contributor, agrees. He sees Obama’s response to the bungling of the health care website as “campaigning.” In speechmaking and in appealing to the American public, Obama has an “odd belief that rhetoric trumps reality,” Krauthammer opines.

Though the men differ in substance points, the effect is the same: By not admitting defeat, the credibility of the White House and the program have been further damaged. Writing on another point, Krauthammer said that by rather than “simply admitting he was wrong, he went Clintonian, explaining that the pledge only applied to certain specified plans – which he now says he meant all along.”

Summers does not pin all of the blame on the president or his administration, saying that Obamacare has been saddled with projected doom by those wishing to see any aspect derailed.

“It is disingenuous for those who stood ready to turn any regulatory detail into an attack ad to profess outrage when guidance was not provided during an election campaign,” Summers wrote in the Post. ”It is hypocritical for those who held up confirmations of key officials with responsibility for managing federal health-care programs and whose behavior deterred many people from coming into government to lash out at the incompetence of government management.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) also made this point on Meet the Press on Sunday. Edwards said, “Republicans in Congress and Republican governors have to stop standing in the way.” But former Republican Rep. and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough rebutted that point and touched on the central theme of Summers’s ideas on obstructionism.

“You can’t blame Chris Christie. You can’t blame John Kasich. You can’t blame Republican governors. You can’t blame Ted Cruz for this botched launch,” Scarborough said. “This botched launch is a self-inflicted wound by the president. It shows just how disconnected he’s been.”

But for Summers, the ultimate issue is not one that will place blame on one side or the other, but a danger to overall government. “The risk is of a vicious cycle in which poor government performance leads, on the one hand, to overly bold promises of repair and, on the other hand, to reduced funding and support for those doing the work,” Summers said. “In the end, government loses the ability to deliver for citizens and citizens lose respect for government. Our democracy is the loser.”

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