If Website Is Fixed, Are Obama's Political Issues Mended?

Dec 2, 2013
Originally published on December 2, 2013 1:27 pm
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And Mara, stay with us because we'd like to bring in Cokie Roberts now. She joins us most Mondays. Good morning, Cokie.


MONTAGNE: Hello. If the technical problems are fixed, does that fix the president's political problems?

ROBERTS: No. The president has now found himself in a position that often happens with second-term presidents, where he is very low in public approval and his leadership numbers are low, and his credibility numbers are low. And that's the big problem that he's had with this whole health care rollout, is that people no longer believe him. And it's because - as we've said before - he said over and over again, if you like what you have, you can keep it. And people are learning that that's not the case.

And more people are likely to learn that that's not the case because somewhere along the line when, you know, it hits for all employers, a lot of employers will say, well, wait, I'm not going to keep my health care coverage for my employees. I'm going to let them go on the exchanges. And so then there'll be another spate of problems for the president here.

MONTAGNE: You know, this administration took pride in a high-tech campaigning; it staked everything on Obamacare. And I think a lot of people are shaking their heads and saying, how did this happen?

ROBERTS: Yeah, it is, it is puzzling - absolutely. But I think it's a combination of policy and politics. On the policy side, the administration was blindsided by the number of Republican governors who said I'm not going to set up a state exchange. This was meant to be played out in the states and they said they weren't going to do it. So that left the federal government having to do a much bigger federal exchange.

But it also then played into the politics where you had Republicans claiming that this was a power grab by the administration, that they wanted to federalize healthcare in America, so that to the extent that they were trying to set up a federal exchange they didn't really want it out there because they thought it would play into the political dialogue.

So what they then did was keep everything inside the White House in setting this all up and it just wasn't - didn't have the capacity to handle something this big. This is a great big, enormous program that needed people who were not inside.

MONTAGNE: And Mara Liasson is still with us. And Mara, how would you measure the cost of this episode, this disastrous rollout of the healthcare program for the president?

MARA LIASSON: Well, as Cokie said, the cost politically has been very high. You know, his approval ratings are at the lowest ever, and those personal attributes, like whether people think he's honest and trustworthy, which have always kept him afloat in the past, even when his job approval ratings slumped, those have gone down, mostly because of the promise he made that, as he said, turned out to be inaccurate, not necessarily only because of the website.

But also his relationships right now with Democrats in Congress are at an all-time low. They are really mad at him. They went out on a limb. They repeated the same promises and the White House was not able to execute correctly. Democratic donors are also disappointed. I think some of that can be turned around if the website works and people start signing up for healthcare, and if they can turn around the net approval rating of the healthcare plan.

Right now it's under water. It's more unpopular than it's ever been. Fixing that will go a long way to fixing the president's problems.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, Cokie, we're going into a relatively quiet period. There's some more budget deadlines coming up. Is the president trying, at this moment, to win over members of Congress?

ROBERTS: Well, the president's had a very hard time with that, and yes, we are going into Christmas season. But the members of Congress are barely here. The House of Representatives comes back today from Thanksgiving break, but then they plan to leave on the 13th, and the Senate is not coming back till next week, so they will have a week where they won't even be here together and then they plan to leave on the 20th.

So they're barely here at the same time and the president's attempts to woo members of Congress to do the kinds of things that often do work in terms of bringing people to the White House and celebrating Christmas together and those kinds of things have not been terribly successful.

And again, part of it is that he hasn't seemed to have his heart in it, but part of it is that the poisonous atmosphere is so poisonous that, as the president says, members of the Republican Party don't even want to have their pictures taken with him, much less be seen to be hobnobbing with him at the White House.

So it's very difficult to make the things that usually work work these days.

MONTAGNE: Well, might foreign policy work for this president? Isn't this a time when - in administrations when presidents tend to look in that direction?

ROBERTS: Certainly. And that is obviously what has been happening and Secretary Kerry is travelling the world. But even on the foreign policy front, there are a lot of problems out there, and one of them, this big new Iranian deal, the president's having some trouble with the United States Senate. There are still many members of the Senate who are talking about tougher sanctions against Iran just at the time when the deal would fall apart if they passed - or at least the fear is that it would fall apart if they passed tougher sanctions.

So even on that front, the president's problems with Congress and problems with getting people to cooperate with each other are making it more difficult for him to have a successful presidency.

MONTAGNE: And that was Cokie Roberts and Mara Liasson. Thank you both very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.