When Barry Met Kathy.....Almost never, it turns out
This story has been updated to reflect the White House's comments.
Journalists and pundits have begun offering lengthy postmortems to explain the causes of the ruinous Obamacare rollout. The debacle’s scale has surprised even progressives who supported the Affordable Care Act. After all, surely three and a half years provided ample time to prepare for a program President Obama calls his “most important initiative.”
Six weeks ago, Obama privately conceded to his advisers, according to the New York Times, “we created this problem we didn’t need to create … and it’s of our own doing.”
So how did it happen? Here’s one theory, backed by new data: not enough meetings.
Amid the Obama administration’s endless rounds of finger-pointing and blame-shifting, scant if any attention has been paid to the amount of time and executive leadership the president personally devoted to implementing his signature legislative achievement.
“Nothing frustrates me more than when people aren’t doing their jobs,” Obama has said. So, with so much riding on the line, one would assume he held weekly, if not daily, one-on-one meetings with his Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to isolate problems, challenge assumptions, apply executive pressure where needed and successfully manage a project of scale.
That did not happen, at least not according to Obama’s own official White House calendar.
A new Government Accountability Institute (GAI) analysis finds that from July 12, 2010, to Nov. 30, 2013, the president’s public schedule records zero one-on-one meetings between Obama and Sebelius. Equally shocking, over the same period, the president's calendar lists 277 private meetings with his other Cabinet secretaries (excluding full Cabinet meetings).
Given these startling findings, and the fact that the White House calendar did not reflect meetings prior to July 12, 2010, GAI researchers then performed a second analysis using another respected recorder of presidential activity, the POLITICO presidential calendar. The results: Just one April 21, 2010 entry was found listing a White House meeting between Obama and Sebelius—and even that was a joint meeting with then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
The eye-opening calendar findings shed new light on some of the curiously worded statements Obama has uttered in the aftermath of the calamitous HealthCare.gov launch. For example, at his Nov. 14 press conference, the president said:
“I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as—the way it was supposed to. Had 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.”
Of course, we now know that contractors had, in fact, notified Sebelius months prior that serious problems persisted and that time was running out for proper testing. However, if Obama was not meeting regularly one-on-one with his HHS secretary to help navigate his signature legislative achievement safely into harbor, it’s hard to discern exactly what the president knew and when he knew it.
To be sure, presidents exchange emails and phone calls that are not recorded on White House calendars. Still, why would the White House calendar list by name one-on-one meetings with 16 other Cabinet secretaries but omit Sebelius if other meetings with her occurred? Wouldn’t Obama want to catalog for all to see his personal devotion to the law that bears his name? Perhaps the insular White House team wanted to distance the president from the bureaucratic process in the hopes of granting him a halo of deniability if the launch failed. Or perhaps the lack of meetings reinforces the severity of what the New York Times describes as the “deeply dysfunctional relationship between the Department of Health and Human Services and its technology contractors, and tensions between the White House chief of staff and senior health department officials.”
Obama’s critics say his loner style makes him unusually uninterested in working with other politicians. The president's closest advisers, like Valerie Jarrett, say the problem is Obama “knows exactly how smart he is” and has “been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.” Obama says the trait he deplores most in himself is that “there’s a laziness in me.”
Whatever the cause, the launch of HealthCare.gov will go down in the annals of executive management as a case study of failure. Obama must answer for his absence of leadership.
UPDATE: The White House’s response to the GAI calendar investigation is absurd and alarming.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday, “Cabinet secretaries don’t regularly get entered into the visitor logs.” The GAI report was not based on visitor logs; it was based on the White House’s own calendar and the POLITICO presidential calendar.
Obama's calendar lists 277 one-on-one meetings between the president and his other Cabinet secretaries, including 73 with former Secretary Clinton and 57 with former Secretary Geithner. If, as Carney claims, Secretary Sebelius “is here a lot and meets with the president with regularity,” why aren’t they listed? How many meetings took place and when did they occur? Carney said he doesn’t know.
And if Obama and Sebelius worked together closely and regularly, why did the president publicly state he did not know about the problems with HealthCare.gov?
In the name of transparency, Americans deserve to know how much time President Obama personally spent over three-and-a-half years leading, managing and working alongside Secretary Sebelius on his signature achievement.
Peter Schweizer is president of the Government Accountability Institute, fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets.