While I was away, I read a new book by Sasha Issenberg called The Victory Lab. It is a detailed historical account of the increasingly sophisticated methods used by political campaigns and number-crunching geeks to slice, dice, parse, and palp the electorate in an effort to identify supporters and get them to the polls. The book culminates, as you might imagine, with two chapters on the two Obama presidential campaigns, which were far and away the most sophisticated, complex, expensive, and successful efforts ever made to bring high-powered social science to bear in the heat of a campaign. It was an impressive effort, far more impressive than I imagined from my ground-level participation in one small part of that campaignin North Carolina.
While I was reading the book, the disastrous roll-out of the ACA website was dominating the news, and it left me mystified. There has never been political campaigns that invested so heavily in high-tech data-crunching manipulation of voter information, and it is quite clear that the drive for this effort came right from the top, from Obama himself. This was not something done on his behalf by people who in effect left the Big Man to make lovely speeches while behind the scenes they got him elected. How on earth could a president who ran those campaigns make such a total botch of the implementation of his signature achievement?
To be sure, the Republicans have done everything they could to destroy Obama and his health care reform. Their behavior has been despicable, beyond redemption, callous, destructive, shameful. But they were not in charge of the implementation of the ACA! Obama was, and is. And the responsibility for the present disaster is entirely his. I do not mean simply that as president he is responsible in some bureaucratic sense for everything that is done by any of the two million federal employees. I mean that he is responsible in the ordinary every day use of that word. He is an extremely intelligent man, totally committed, by the evidence of his campaigns, to the most advanced use of IT in all of its manifestations. He has been aware for years that the Republicans would do everything they could to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Why on earth did he not start planning for its implementation three years ago? Why did he not make certain that competent people were put in charge of its implementation? Why did he not demand in this instance, as he did repeatedly during the campaigns, that websites be tested and debugged and tried out experimentally before launching them?
I confess I do not know the answers to these questions. Reading Issenberg's book forced me to focus on the details of Obama's unparallelled use of IT during the campaigns. His failure in this instance is, as Tallyrand said of Napoleon's murder of the Duc d'Engien, worse than a crime; it is a blunder.
One last word. At the moment, Obama is being pilloried for his repeated statements that "if you like your health care insurance, you can keep it," which is not exactly true under the ACA. This repeated promise was not a blunder, nor was it a crime. It was a deliberately calculated half truth, designed to reassure people with lousy health plans who will benefit enormously under the ACA but are freaked out at the thought that they will end up without even the lousy coverage they are now over-paying for. Whether it was an unwise political choice on Obama's part remains to be seen, but it is perfectly comprehensible. The botch of the website rollout is not.