Gwen’s Take: The Art of the Kicked Can

Posted: Thu, 11/14/2013 - 4:02pm

The coin of the realm in Washington, D.C. is delay.

Can’t agree on whether to raise the debt ceiling? Put it off. Unable to pass a budget to keep the government open? Put a patch on it. Impossible to stop the bleeding from a botched health care rollout? Reach for gauze and a big fat bandage.

In the nation’s capital, where no one seems able to agree on anything, delay has come to be the basis of governing.

The script has become predictable. It starts with deadlines – some imposed by law, and some imposed by man. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, some deadlines were also made inflexible by politics.

As a result, there was no perceived wiggle room when it came to the October 1 rollout for the health care exchanges contained in the law. Political imperative – and a little stubbornness – demanded the website go live before it was ready.

The president admitted this and more in Thursday’s remarkable mea culpa news conference, in which he apologized to Democrats for stranding them, admitted he deserved the criticism he’d gotten for the health care rollout, and promised an internal investigation into why it all happened.

“There have been times where I thought we…got, you know, slapped around a little bit unjustly,” he said in one of a series of ruminations before the assembled White House press corps. “This one's deserved, all right? It's on us.”

President Obama talked to the White House Press Corps about the Affordable Care Act on Thursday [Photo:CNN].

Watching the president fall on his sword in this manner ended up overshadowing the reason he came to the briefing room in the first place. In time-honored tradition, he had agreed to delay the implementation of a key part of the health care plan for a year. Insurance companies were vexed by this kicked can. Democrats, coping with the anger of constituents whose insurance policies were threatened with cancellation, were mollified.

For a second term president with approval ratings headed for the crater, it’s the second part that mattered the most. Instead of railing at the Republicans who hated and tried to derail Obamacare all along, President Obama used the news conference to admit that he, personally, had let his supporters down.

“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they're running or not, because they stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin,” he said. “I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place.’’

Second terms are no fun. People stop listening to you. Political imperatives fade along with leverage. Yet presidents still want to get things done -– whether it be the implementation of a sweeping health care law, the passage of a budget, immigration reform or Middle East peace.

Big screw-ups make all those jobs harder. So if it means the White House can live to fight another day at negotiating tables in Geneva or closed door party caucuses on Capitol Hill, kicking the can down the road is often the only available option.

That’s the sound you heard this week.