The Point of No Return President Obama is about to play defense, for three years.
President Obama is facing the abyss. Itâs that moment when a presidentâs plans are overwhelmed by his problems, and heâs relegated to playing defense for the rest of his White House term. Obamaâs agenda already lingers near death. His poll numbers have slipped to new lows. His speeches are full of alibis and accusations.
Obama with 11 Americans who may or may not have been able to log on to healthcare.gov
Obama hasnât reached the point of no return, but heâs close. His biggest problem is the collapse of Obamacare on its launching pad as the entire country watched. And thereâs worse trouble ahead. More likely than not, Obamacare will be the dominant issue in the final three-plus years of his presidency. From that, thereâs no recovery.
Years on defenseâimpotent yearsâhave beset even the strongest of presidents. After the Iran-contra scandal broke in November 1986, the Reagan presidency was essentially over. He served two more years and made a triumphant trip to the Soviet Union, but his power was gone. The low point was the overturning of his veto of a highway bill.
Jimmy Carterâs presidency was hardly a powerhouse. Still, it had one shining moment, when the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt was signed in September 1978. What clout Carter had vanished after the âmalaiseâ speech in July 1979. It made him a target of ridicule.
Impeachment in 1998 forced President Clinton into retreat. His popularity remained high, but he abandoned an agenda that included entitlement reform. Even an unexpected Democratic victory in the midterm elections in his second term couldnât revive his presidency.
In George W. Bushâs case, problems in his second term quickly engulfed his administration. The Iraq war became a bloodbath, his plan for overhauling Social Security had few takers, and he was blamed, unfairly, for the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina. A troop buildup and adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy saved Iraq from disaster, but otherwise Bushâs second term was marked by futility.
Now, with his presidency in peril, Obama seems unprepared to avert paralysis. The failed startup of Obamacare, its website a âjokeâ in the view of 60 percent of America in a Fox News poll, caught the president by surprise. He refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem, conceding only that healthcare.gov wasnât working as âsmoothly as it was supposed to.â Neither is his presidency.
From all appearances, Obama sees the Obamacare mess as partly a political headache. A headline in Politico last week captured this: âWhite House works to flip Obamacare narrative.â Itâs as if Obama and his advisers think theyâre dealing with a faux pas to be smoothed over with political spin. Commentaryâs Peter Wehner calls this attitude âdetachment from reality.â
True, Obamacare will be a campaign issue in the 2014 midterm elections and no doubt a significant factor in the presidential election two years later. But thatâs not because Obamacare is merely a matter of politics. Itâs because Obamacare is now the official health care system for 310 million people and represents one-sixth of the American economy.
And itâs a national embarrassment whose troubles are only beginning. Unpleasant shocks loom for a majority of Americans who tap into Obamacare exchanges. Those 40 years of age and younger will discover next year their insurance premiums are âa lot higher than they would pay in todayâs market,â says health care expert James Capretta. That will create a furor.
So, too, some lower-middle-income and middle-class Americans will find their access to doctors is limited. Why? Because many of the countryâs biggest and best hospitals and some doctors have not agreed to take on this category of patients. Also, patients will be forced to endure longer waits as a result of a doctor shortage. In 2015 and 2016, the popular Medicare Advantage program will shrink.
Low-income folks and those with preexisting conditions will prosper under Obamacare. But how will middle-income Americans feel when they learn theyâre paying considerably more for the same insurance? Not happy, I suspect. Or those under 30 who chose a âcatastrophic-onlyâ policy with high deductibles? They wonât be thrilled when told they are ineligible for a subsidy, whatever their income.
The point is that as Obamacare is rolled out over the final years of this presidency, there will be numerous occasions when Obamaâs promises about the new health insurance scheme are exposed as untrue. If these incidents donât provoke a crisis, theyâll at least keep Obamacare from fading as a prominent and fiercely debated issue.
And the president will pay a price. Heâll be stuck on defense, unable to change the subject. His agenda wonât help. A $9 minimum wage, universal preschool, immigration reform, global warming legislation, more infrastructure spending, higher taxesâthereâs nothing close to a national consensus in support of these liberal leftovers.
Despite all this, Obama could escape a lost presidency. He has a loyal base thatâs kept his approval rating in the low 40s. (Carter and Bush dipped into the 20s.) Democrats may be dreaming when they envision a 2014 election in which Republicans suffer badly from the shutdown. But itâs not inconceivable Republicans could lose the House, and their prospects of capturing the Senate are no better than 50-50. Then and only then, Obamaâs presidency could be spared an early death and the nationâs attention shifted from a dreadful health plan named after him. Thatâs a nice scenario, but Iâm not buying it. The humiliation of presiding over Obamacareâs debut wonât be soon forgotten.
But ponder this: Had Obamacare been created as a private enterprise with Obama as CEO, it wouldnât have lasted a week. Not only would the stumbling company have been put out of business, so would its incompetent CEO. And weâd allâwell, most of usâbe better off.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.