Winning “The Big One”: Obama and Healthcare

Hoerger Obama Football

By Ryan Hoerger.

It’s been three weeks since the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. The disastrous result for Denver quarterback Peyton Manning furthered criticism against the star for his struggles in the playoffs. Manning is now 11-12 in postseason action and 1-2 in Super Bowls, the country’s premiere sporting spectacle. For some, these poor marks in the “Big One” will tarnish the quarterback’s legacy. 

In this regard, Peyton Manning resembles President Obama—only Obama’s Super Bowl is the end result of his healthcare reform plan. And it isn’t just a game.

Like Manning, a five-time MVP and holder of countless records, Obama has significant accomplishments to which he can point with pride when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017. Other than making history as the first African-American to be elected president, Obama has spurred the recovery of General Motors and the economy as a whole, even if the recovery hasn’t been quick as had been hoped. Under Obama’s direction, the United States sought vengeance by finding and killing Osama bin Laden in 2011. Healthcare reform, though, has been the dominant storyline throughout Obama’s term in office. His proposals for sweeping reform on the 2008 campaign trail were part of what carried him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and he was able to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. Things have gone downhill since then.

From the start, the ACA has been a public relations disaster. Many Americans felt the law to be a government overreach from the beginning; once conservatives latched onto the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) and labeled them “death panels,” the law became even more unpopular. The term “Obamacare” has been used with all sorts of connotations—first as a slight by conservatives, then as a positive by Democrats (including Obama himself) and now as an ambiguous synonym for the ACA—which has only made the task of explaining a complicated law more challenging. Such confusion has resulted in widespread misinformation and general lack of knowledge among the citizenry. As recently as October 2013, Jimmy Kimmel Live interviewed people on the street who supported the Affordable Care Act but disapproved of Obamacare.

Team Obama revolutionized campaign strategy with its use of social media in 2008—it knows how to get a message out, but committed an unforced error in its lack of outreach regarding the law’s contents. The ACA’s prospects were damaged before Obama could react—a lot like the Super Bowl’s opening play, when the ball was snapped over Manning’s head for a safety. Obama was dealt another blow when the Supreme Court ruled in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that states would not be required to expand Medicaid as outlined by the ACA. The ruling allowed Republican-controlled states to stick it to Obama, greatly reducing the president’s position of power and jeopardizing the law’s expected increase in the number of insured Americans.

The start to the ACA was rough, as was Manning’s rookie season in Indianapolis (3-13). But Manning rebounded to master the gridiron, while Obama has been stymied by gridlock.

Congressional Republicans have opposed the president on most issues, but healthcare reform has been their primary sticking point. For them, the game plan for winning back the White House in 2012—and now 2016—has centered on blocking Obama’s every move, particularly his crown jewel: the ACA. For instance, Congressional Republicans have voted 47 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act—each vote being more symbolic than the last. In many respects, the Obama administration has played into their hands. Republicans argued that the government could not operate healthcare exchanges efficiently and the ongoing saga of the rollout has, for the moment, proved them right. The inexcusable glitches in the website’s interface were the Super Bowl equivalent of the blackout in last year’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers—a technology failure of immense proportions which affected millions of people.

Albert Einstein called doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results insanity. This is true in all lines of work, from the NFL to the Oval Office. The cerebral facet of Manning’s game is what sets him apart from the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL. His ability to read the defense at the line of scrimmage and audible into different formations and plays is unparalleled. If Obama is to repackage the Affordable Care Act for public acceptance and approval, he will have to call some major audibles of his own.

So far, the White House’s response to the private sector’s uncertainty and lukewarm response to the ACA has been to delay, delay, delay. The employer mandate for businesses with between 50 and 99 employees was supposed to kick in on Jan. 1, 2014. Last year, the administration pushed the deadline back to 2015, and two weeks pushed it back again to 2016. Few things are gained by delaying the employer mandate. If the mandate is properly enforced, millions of Americans will receive access to healthcare, but the extensions will have cost them financially, physically and emotionally. If it is not properly enforced, however, Obama still has three years to amend the policy to fix the problems instead of handing them to his successor, who may very well repeal the law altogether. Failure to enforce the mandate also detracts from the risk pool, which means premiums and insurance policies for everyone else wouldn’t go down as quickly. With the partisan division that already exists over the ACA, enforcing the employer mandate wouldn’t be the end-all for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Playing political games with Americans’ access to health insurance isn’t the answer; rather than call timeout to prolong the inevitable, Obama should instead explore different policies in his playbook. Convene an annual healthcare summit to bring together representatives from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, small businesses and corporations, and liberals and conservatives, seeking their input and suggestions. Look for ways to compensate businesses for providing health insurance to workers, in much the same way proposed to reward firms for hiring U.S. military veterans. Nonetheless, Obama’s best chance of turning things around may be just limping to the 2014 midterm elections and hoping for a Hail Mary. If Democrats can take back a considerable number of seats in the House of Representatives and keep control of the Senate, doing so would send a message to Washington to shake things up and likely give Obama and Democrats more flexibility to take action, possibly a weak mandate if enough Tea Party representatives are voted out of office.

It’s clear that Obama, like Manning at MetLife Stadium Feb. 2, faces a long uphill battle to emerge from his predicament with a victory. As quarterback of the federal government, Obama owes it to U.S. citizens to be a leader—forthright and transparent—about the law’s progress. Instead of simply lauding a few successful anecdotes, the president must keep us informed about the challenges facing the new law and what the Department of Health and Human Services is doing to fix them. I’d rather find out about them from Obama himself than from the media, because, right now, the ACA looks a lot better on paper than it did when the administration tried to execute it.

Kind of like this year’s Super Bowl matchup.

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