Why Did President Obama Say the Healthcare Website Would Work?

He must have known that his words would be quickly disproved. His public optimism before the rollout remains a big mystery.


There's something I don't understand about the rollout of Healthcare.gov: that President Obama expressed unqualified confidence about it shortly before it was launched.


After the president acknowledged at a November 14 news conference that the website "was failing the most basic tests internally," CBS reporter Major Garrett noted that the White House was aware of its failings "and yet a decision was made to launch the website on October 1st." In response, Obama seemed to recognize everyone's confusion.

Here's what he said:

OK. On the website, I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as—the way it was supposed to. Has I been informed, I wouldn't be going out saying, boy, this is going to be great. You know, I'm accused of a lot of things, 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.

So, clearly, we and I did not have enough awareness about the problems in the website. Even a week into it, the thinking was that these were some glitches that would be fixed with patches, as opposed to some broader systemic problems that took much longer to fix and we're still working on them.

So you know, that doesn't excuse the fact that they just don't work, but I think it's fair to say, no, Major, we—we would not have rolled out something knowing very well that it wasn't going to work the way it was supposed to, given all the scrutiny that we knew was going to be on—on the website.

You know what? That reasoning probably sounded persuasive to most people listening. It would be stupid to tout something knowing it's about to be proven not to work. And for good reason, no one thinks that Barack Obama is a stupid man. If he knew the website would fail, his actions wouldn't seem to make any sense.

There's just one problem: The idea that he didn't know it would fail doesn't seem to make any sense either. The New York Times just published a deep dive on what went wrong. Here are some excerpts:

  • "Vital components were never secured, including sufficient access to a data center to prevent the website from crashing. A backup system that could go live if it did crash was not created, a weakness the administration has never disclosed. And the architecture of the system that interacts with the data center where information is stored is so poorly configured that it must be redesigned, a process that experts said typically takes months."
  • "An initial assessment identified more than 600 hardware and software defects—'the longest list anybody had ever seen,' one person involved with the project said."
  • "When the realization of impending disaster finally hit government officials at the Aug. 27 meeting—just 34 days before the site went live—they threw out nearly 30 requirements, including the Spanish-language version of the site and a payment system for insurers to receive government subsidies for the policies they sold. Even then, the system failed a test of only 500 simulated users in late September. Panicked, agency officials sent out an urgent order to almost double the system’s data capacity, technicians involved in the project have now confirmed. But the site was still down more than half the time in mid-October." 
  • "In the last week of September, the disastrous results of the project’s inept management and execution were becoming fully apparent. The agency pressed CGI to explain why a performance test showed that the site could not handle more than 500 simultaneous users. The response once again exhibited the blame-shifting that had plagued the project for months." 

Finally, there's this reporting (my emphasis):

... the president’s signature initiative was effectively left under the day-to-day management of Henry Chao, a 19-year veteran of the Medicare agency with little clout and little formal background in computer science. Mr. Chao had to consult with senior department officials and the White House, and was unable to make many decisions on his own. “Nothing was decided without a conversation there,” said one agency official involved in the project, referring to the constant White House demands for oversight.

Mr. Chao seemed to colleagues to be at his wit’s end. One evening last summer, he called Wallace Fung, who retired in 2008 as the Medicare agency’s chief technology officer. Mr. Fung said in an interview that he told Mr. Chao to greatly simplify the site’s functions. “Henry, this is not going to work. You cannot build this kind of system overnight,” Mr. Fung said he told him. “I know,” Mr. Chao answered, according to Mr. Fung. “But I cannot talk them out of it.”

Once again: It does not seem credible that Obama was unaware that failure was likely. And if he really was unaware, the implications are extremely unflattering. Either he failed abjectly to ask the right questions of a staff that was also derelict in informing him, or else he asked the right questions and his staff misled him.

What the Times story confirms is that the launch of Healthcare.gov wasn't the sort of failure that reasonable actors could have failed to anticipate beforehand.

White House officials, and perhaps the president himself, pretended everything would work wonderfully, despite what was at minimum a strong possibility of failure. Advance notice could have lessened the frustration and inconvenience to countless Americans. But they opted against giving advance notice anyway—even though managing expectations probably would have been better politically. We're expecting some glitches, but bear with us. A team is in place to fix them.

The attempt could have hardly made things worse.

So I don't get it. Why didn't the White House get ahead of this story? Why did Obama spend the days before launch signaling that everything was going to turn out great? Curiosity is reason enough to ask these questions, but they're also important because we want a government that warns us when something it does is about to fail, not one that irrationally keeps bad news quiet despite high costs and no benefits.

So why did Team Obama behave as it did?