How Jay Carney Spins Obamacare’s Failures

How you look at things.
Nov. 14 2013 10:25 AM

Obamacare’s Janitor

How Jay Carney spins Obamacare’s failures.

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White House Press Secretary Jay Carney speaking to reporters on Oct. 11, 2013.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Poor Jay Carney. He’s a decent guy. He has an important job: press secretary to the president of the United States. I’m a total homer for his boss, and I like the Affordable Care Act, though it needs lots of repair. But right now, if you gave me a choice between cleaning bathrooms at the bus station and explaining Obamacare’s snafus to reporters every day, I’d take the mop.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

How does Carney handle the stress? With a few creative phrases. Here’s a guide.

1. Vast majority. More than six weeks after healthcare.gov was supposed to be reliably functional, it still isn’t. In Carney’s lovely parlance, it’s “subeffective.” But don’t worry. Carney assures us that by Nov. 30, the “vast majority” of users will be happy. The genius of this promise is that it’s hard to falsify. You can’t see the denominator. Your inability to access the system is just anecdote, an outlier. Hence this delightful exchange with reporters on Wednesday:

Carney: We can both meet that goal and have individual experiences reported back to us that are less than satisfactory. …
Q:
  What does that mean, the "vast majority"?
Carney:
I think it means what I'm saying, which is that we do not and would not set a goal, and should never have set a goal—
Q:
Well, there has to be a number, right?
Carney:
Well, I don't have a number attached to that. I think that, again, it would be hard to pinpoint, when you're getting anecdotal cases of individuals who have not had a satisfactory experience, what that percentage represents. …
Q:
So there is no number goal.
Carney:
… I'm being, I think, very clear here, as I was yesterday, by saying that that does not mean, and nor should you or do we expect it to mean, that there will not be, even if we meet that goal, any individuals out there who didn't have the website time out or didn't have an eight-second delay for one page loading, because that happens, as it does I think for all of us, on websites every day.
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I could make fun of this, but what’s the point? It’s already parody.

2. Progress. No matter how late, slow, or inadequate the fixes are, you can always point out that things are moving forward. On Nov. 4, Carney noted that the healthcare.gov rescue team is “making incremental progress … every day. And while the site is not by any means without challenges or glitches today, it is better today than it was in early October.” On Wednesday he repeated that “progress on these metrics are moving in the right direction,” lest anyone worry that progress might be moving in the wrong direction. “Each day we get closer to where we need to be,” said Carney.

3. Reform. When the website isn’t working, or when people who were told they could keep their health insurance plans start losing them, you can change the subject from bad performance and false promises to “reform.” This handy buzzword, exploited by both parties, flattens all debates into whether you support the legislation in question (in which case you’re for progress and integrity) or oppose it (in which case you’re a corrupt, entrenched interest). On Nov. 7, when Carney was asked about healthcare.gov’s troubles, he concluded:

In the end, this is still a discussion and a debate about, “Is it the right thing to do to reform our health care system in a way that builds on the private insurance markets that we have, but can provide access to affordable, quality health insurance to millions of Americans who don't have it?” And the president’s belief, which has animated him since he ran for president, is that the answer to that question is yes. That's what we debated when the law was being considered by Congress.  That's what we have debated ever since as Republicans have sought to repeal it. And I would just remind folks that, in the end, these discussions circle around the question of, “Should we have reform or not?”

At other briefings, Carney has repeated these phrases. Obamacare was “the right thing to do.” Its passage after a century of effort was a historic “achievement.” Don’t get bogged down in the petty question of whether it actually works.

4. Rooting for failure. Remember when anyone who criticized the Iraq war was unpatriotic? Liberals can play that game, too. If you criticize Obamacare, you’re against helping your fellow man. “There are those who are clearly rooting for failure because their preference has always been that there not be any reform,” Carney sniffed Wednesday. “There are people rooting for failure.”

5. The alternative. When all else fails, go negative. On Wednesday, a reporter asked Carney whether “the law has a credibility problem with the public.” Carney answered,

With all the problems with the implementation that we've seen with the marketplaces, it is absolutely important to remember [that] the Affordable Care Act is not running against itself in the campaign of public opinion. It’s also running against the alternative. And, as you know, opponents of the Affordable Care Act have offered this as an alternative. They've said this: You're on your own. You're out of luck.

It’s the campaign strategist’s favorite play: No matter how bad my candidate is, the other guy is worse. When Democrats soured on the Iraq war, President Bush called them the party of “cut and run.” Now Republicans are the party of “you’re on your own.” But in government, unlike campaigns, you can’t go negative forever. Sooner or later, you have to deliver.

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