The biggest problem associated with the healthcare.gov website is the “gov” part of it. The Affordable Care Act was the product of a long, corrosive battle and it is being administered by the government, which people don’t trust. So when Simas makes the pitch, you can hear how carefully he tries to sell signing up as detached from the politics that surround it. “This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans, the blue team or the red team. Check it out and you decide if this works for you.” Signing up is set up as an act of personal and individual empowerment. Simas is not inviting people to recline into the massive government maw, he’s leading them to the place where they can make their own choice.
If people come to the conclusion on their own, they're more likely to evangelize about it, post it on Facebook, or share it on Twitter. That's where the Obama administration wants this conversation to take place. It learned from the presidential campaign that when it comes to an issue with competing claims, people have to come to knowledge on their own or they don't believe it. Simas recounted the story of a woman at a focus group during the campaign who was frustrated by hearing conflicting spin from both sides. " ‘I don't know where to go and find the truth. If I go to one website it tells me one thing, and if I go to another website it tells me another thing.’ Well, ma'am, what do you believe? ‘When my neighbor or my co-worker or someone else I trust tells me so, because they're not going to spin me like everybody else.’ "
Of course, the White House can’t risk this conversation rising up organically. The president and his advisers have been pushing the merits of the Affordable Care Act in every possible way, and people are still confused. That’s why the administration has enlisted celebrities and other sideways approaches to reach Americans impervious to official propaganda. "There's that 27-year-old guy in Walgreens who is maybe following Marc Anthony on Twitter, maybe his friend is a Baltimore Ravens fan,” says Simas, “and he will get, week after week, subtle messages, ‘Go to healthcare.gov and check it out.’ At some point that man or that woman will."
This week, as Congress flirted with a shutdown linked to a Republican-led effort to defund Obamacare, there was never any chance that the rollout was in danger of being derailed. Administration officials say even a government shutdown wouldn’t delay the Oct. 1 plan. But House Republican leaders may have a Plan B: to ask for a one-year delay of implementation. After all, the president delayed the regulations on businesses with more than 50 employees, and they’ve just added a new small-business delay. Why not let regular folks have a break, too?
No chance. It’s not just that a delay would allow opponents another year to pick at the law (perhaps with a Republican Senate after the 2014 elections) or that a delay would crumple the ramp-up set to launch in just a few days. A delay, Simas believes, would postpone necessary economic relief for those who have already waited long enough.
To make this point, Simas holds up a chart that he carries with him everywhere. It tracks productivity growth, GDP per capita, and average household income. From 1992 to 2002, all signs follow the same upward trajectory. Then in 2002, household income plateaus. “What you hear all over, all the time, is this expression: ‘I'm working harder and harder and falling farther behind.’ When you probe people about what this means to them, one out of two will bring up health care.
This goes to the heart about how people feel about the economy. … That's why this isn't just about health care. This goes to the core of middle-class security.”
It’s that thinking that has guaranteed there is no way the president would give in to Republican demands. If Obamacare is delayed, it would deprive middle-class Americans of the one economic benefit President Obama has been able to deliver for which people are likely to give him credit. Now the president just has to hope that on launch day, healthcare.gov can handle the traffic.