Healthcare.gov and Obama's Micromanagement Problem

The website's failures and the scramble to correct demonstrate most the president's administrative struggles.
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Jason Reed/Reuters

If the White House is to believed, the nightmare of Healthcare.gov is nearly over, even if nasty flashbacks may haunt the site in the coming weeks and months. (As to whether it is to be believed time will tell, though President Obama no longer gets the benefit of Americans' doubt.)

Even if all is well, the shocking stumble is a catalog of all the complaints about Obama's management style, which his detractors say swings between detachment and coolness on one extreme and micromanagement on the other, all worsened by an insularity that prevents contrary or fresh viewpoints that might help correct course. Obamacare's implementation may indeed determine the fate of the liberal vision of government, but the root of its problems seems to be his administrative approach, not his political philosophy.

During the lead-up to the website's launch, Obama seemed confident it would work well—which, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf pointed out, suggests two equally unflattering possibilities: Either Obama was lying or he had no idea what was going on. Assuming it was the latter—after all, the president was at the same time grappling with a House GOP threatening to drive the country into default—he was totally disengaged on an issue that could determine the fate of his signature law and his party's fate in crucial midterm elections.

Now zoom ahead to October 15. A great New York Times tick-tock describes one meeting during the administration's scramble to fix what ailed the site:

The political dangers were clear to everyone in the room: Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary; Marilyn Tavenner, the Medicare chief; Denis McDonough, the chief of staff; Todd Park, the chief technology officer; and others. For 90 excruciating minutes, a furious and frustrated president peppered his team with questions, drilling into the arcane minutiae of web design as he struggled to understand the scope of a crisis that suddenly threatened his presidency.

That's the sort of thing that makes management gurus tear out chunks of hair: the most powerful man in the room (in the free world!), trying to figure out the smallest details of a site that is broken from top to bottom. On November 8 in New Orleans, Obama told a crowd"I wanted to go in and fix it myself, but I don’t write code." He played the line for laughs, but perhaps it was more serious than he let on. This is the man who once boasted he could do every job on his campaign better than his hired hands: "I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters .... I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

Here's one more telling passage from the Times story:

For weeks, aides to [Secretary of Health Human Services Kathleen] Sebelius had expressed frustration with [Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough, mocking his “countdown calendar,” which they viewed as an example of micromanagement.

Now the chief of staff of a White House known for its insularity was again turning inward, looking to an Obama intimate who had no involvement in the creation of the health care website for what Mr. McDonough called “independent eyes.”

On Thursday, Ben Smith noted what he called "the mystery of Denis McDonough": The White House is running better than ever on a mechanical level, and yet the outcomes are worse than ever. Smith's two conjectures were that McDonough's interest is more in foreign than domestic policy, and that he's too close to the president to challenge him. But maybe, in his penchant for detail, he's also just too temperamentally similar to the micromanaging Obama.

And then of course there's the insularity. (Glenn Thrush of Politico Magazine documented more instances of the tendency in a long piece earlier this month on how Obama uses—and often enough doesn't use—his cabinet.) Throw in an insurance-industry-enraging tweet from Valerie Jarrett—the senior adviser highly trusted by the Obamas and apparently few others in the White House—and the episode checks nearly all the boxes for Obama Administration dysfunction.

A couple weeks ago, a very silly debate about whether the launch of Healthcare.gov was "President Obama's Hurricane Katrina" engulfed political chattering classes. Setting aside the question, the link provides a good comparison of the two presidents' leadership styles. The conventional portrait of George W. Bush is of a hands-off manager uninterested in and incapable of grappling with policy details. His detachment from the disaster on the Gulf Coast, epitomized by the classic airplane photo, was just the proof his opponents needed.

If each president tends to rebel against his predecessors' perceived failings, perhaps Obama's obsession with detail on Healthcare.gov and elsewhere is an overcorrection. A somewhat weathered president now has three years left to get that balance right.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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