Barack Obama

Obama battles to regain credibility after health care law roll-out

'Fumbled' roll-out of flagship health care law raises serious questions over his leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 November, 2013, 4:20am

Throughout his career as a national politician, Barack Obama has often benefited from comparisons with others.

Nearing the end of the first year of his second term, he is running mostly against himself - and falling short. The disastrous roll-out of his health care law has put him on the spot in ways he has rarely been before.

The US president, whose reliance on smart people and rational analysis has been at the foundation of his often-insulated governing style, has been forced to admit that he and his team vastly underestimated the challenge of implementing the Affordable Care Act.

His appearance in the White House Briefing Room on Thursday was primarily to announce an administrative fix to quell the furore surrounding the cancellation of health insurance policies for millions of Americans in the individual market.

But it also became an exercise in acknowledging error, in highlighting what he didn't know or misjudged, and in recognising that regaining public confidence will take a long time under the best of circumstances.

Obama admitted the obvious - that his administration "fumbled" the roll-out and that those missteps have changed the public's view of him.

"I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general," he said of Americans. "And, you know, that's on me."

The most recent national polls tell the story of Obama's decline. His overall approval ratings have hit record lows and his ratings on major issues are at or near their lowest points.

The health care mess is a major contributor, but the question he must grapple with is the degree to which there are deeper doubts about his leadership.

A majority in a new poll at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, say he is not trustworthy, and most say he is not a strong leader. In a Gallup survey, only half said he is honest. Throughout most of his presidency, that number in Gallup's tracking hovered around 60 per cent.

Obama's approval ratings may be at record lows, but not by much. In August and September 2011, the fallout from the messy debt-ceiling negotiations that collapsed left him at a low point politically and emotionally, with poll numbers similar to today's.

Obama's reaction was to pivot after Labour Day that year to his re-election campaign, force the public to choose between him and Republican Mitt Romney, frame the election in terms most favourable to himself and make as much of the debate as possible about his rival's weaknesses.

By the end of last year, after his re-election, his approval ratings bounced back above 50 per cent. Those numbers began moving down early in his second term and have dropped sharply since September. But Obama has no campaign left to run, at least not against another politician.

The campaign ahead is one to restore credibility to his presidency. Without it, his second-term agenda remains at risk.

The campaign he must wage now requires a different focus. It is about competency and delivering on promises, whether on health care or the economy.

It requires a more positive and consistent approach, even in the face of opposition from Republicans determined to prove that Obamacare will never work.

No one knows how much the health care problems or criticism of Republicans over the federal government shutdown will influence next year's midterm elections. But Democrats will not blindly follow the president's lead if trouble with the health care law continues.

The president has left congressional Democrats in a difficult position, just as he did when he asked them to pass the legislation along strictly partisan lines.

Many paid for that vote with the loss of their seats in 2010.