Obama is not (quite) on the ropes (yet…)

by Gene Giannotta

From Gallup, presidential approval for the past seven two-term presidents at comparable points in their second term:

 source: Gallup

Overall approval, according to Gallup for presidents in the 20th quarter of their administrations, stands at 46%. Obama is on par with George W. Bush and Harry Truman, slightly outpacing them. Nixon had plenty of problems to contend with after his landslide reelection, and in 1974, he would resign because of Watergate.

Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all had approval ratings around 60% at this point in their presidencies, but none of those men had to contend with the same kind of polarized information environment that we have today.

Here’s a comparison of average approval ratings for each of the presidents since Gallup started tracking in the 1940s:

But as Gallup notes, approval often dips in the second term. They compare the averages:

Two exceptions to the rule:

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are the only two out of seven previously re-elected post-World War II presidents who augmented their popularity over the course of their second stretch in office. Reagan and Clinton — who had identical 50% first-term approval averages — each entered office during a down economy and presided over muscular economic growth during their second term. As a result, their approval ratings moved upward; Reagan’s average rose to 55%, while Clinton’s soared to 61%.

That’s interesting given that both presidents faced serious scandals in their second terms - Iran-contra for Reagan and impeachment for Clinton.

(As an aside, I just want to note a big caveat for the Johnson numbers - LBJ’s first term lasted about fourteen months and those consisted of the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the election that he would have been running for reelection in, so that 74% average is probably skewed by that.)

One wrinkle in all this is personal popularity. Those numbers above are for job approval. But the public could cut a president some slack if they think he’s done a mediocre job but like the guy personally. This is a story that’s been common for Obama’s presidency - his approval numbers have largely floated right around the middle but his personal popularity has been quite high.

That, however, seems to be changing.

But is it really? Here’s a chart from the Washington Post last month that compares the likability + approval trends:

Except for the spike in job approval with the death of Osama bin Laden, the trend lines largely correlate, albeit with his favorability ratings slightly higher. That difference is pretty small throughout his presidency but seems to be getting even smaller, to the point of dipping into net negative territory.

Here are some numbers from a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, showing a similar trend:

Rather than just include the headline number for the current polling period, I thought it’d be instructive to look at what their results have shown dating back to 2011. Over 28 polls since January of that year, Obama’s average “very positive” rating was at about 29% of respondents, while the average “very negative” rating was at 27% of respondents. The latest results show him at five percentage points worse than the average in both categories. The margin of error of the current poll is +/- 3.46%, so it’s possible the true values (the actual percent of the population that feels that way) are closer to the averages than the numbers we see here (which are estimates of that actual percent).

In other words, while these numbers certainly aren’t great for Obama and the context in which the most recent polling has been done provides some cause for concern (left a mess, the Affordable Care Act rollout has the potential to undermine his popularity by any measure), they aren’t really shocking. They seem to fit both the broader trends of presidential history and Obama’s own experience.

Another point to make about these poll trends is the role of media coverage. When attention is focused on a particular person, people obviously become more aware of them, more knowledgeable about them, and more able to make  judgments. Presidents get a good deal of visibility, period, and when a major policy has come to bear your name it’s no surprise that can make a difference. If the ACA had never been known as “Obamacare” would Obama be saddled with as much of the blame as he has? Or would his response be seen as a popularly-accepted rebuke of government contracting run amok?

It’s impossible to answer those questions, but I can show how attention can help shift opinion. I’ll use two examples of potential presidential candidates and their own favorability ratings from that same NBC News/WSJ poll.

Here’s Hillary Clinton, with data back to 2011:

Like Obama above, she isn’t an unknown quantity - the “don’t know name/not sure” column at the far right has a range of 0-2%. She’s been in the public consciousness for two decades, so people know who she is and can make judgments accordingly. Interestingly, she’s also underperforming her averages despite having been out of the secretary of state job for most of this year. Let’s dig deeper and look at her numbers dating back to her taking office as a senator from New York in 2001:

Just from eyeballing it, what becomes obvious is that her best-performing poll trend was her tenure as secretary of state. Now that she’s mostly a topic of political discussion these days rather than a relatively quiet public servant, maybe opinion of her is defaulting to where it was before 2009. The type of coverage could matter here, and it would be interesting to look at that data to see if there’s a correlation. But for now, I just want to point out the general trends. Like Obama, she’s a well-known public figure. Movement in opinion about her, like that about the president, can be as much a function of factors that are highly-visible (i.e., “salient”) bringing more attention to her and thus “activating” existing biases, as it could be due to actual shifts.

Chris Christie’s favorability ratings offer another example of how greater visibility can make a difference. Back in June 2011, Chris Christie was just over a year into his first term as governor of New Jersey. His “very positive” and “very negative” ratings were about the same as today - 10% and 7% then, 9% and 7% now. But now only about a quarter of respondents said they don’t know who he is, versus 44% two years ago. 

The difference there is 18 points. Note that the number who say they have a “somewhat positive” view of him is now 11 percentage points greater than in 2011 and the proportion that says it has a “neutral” view is now 5 points higher. In 2011, almost fifty percent of respondents didn’t know who Christie was; today, almost half of respondents have either a “neutral” or “somewhat positive” view of him. Given the generally positive press attention he’s received over that time span, that’s probably not much of a surprise.

It’s true that Obama’s personal likability, or growing lack thereof, is a story to follow. But what isn’t clear is whether it’s a worrisome trend unique to Obama or a function of two variables he has little control over: historical tendencies of declining second-term popularity and the tone of media coverage.

He has to contend with both. And the debacle over HealthCare.gov and insurance policy cancellations has, for really the first time during his presidency, placed the questions of his managerial competence and honesty front and center in a very bipartisan way. Placed in that context, those declining numbers really aren’t all that surprising.

The 2013 Elections Only Tell Us About 2013

By Matt Sarge

The marquee races of the off-year election were Chris Christie and Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia respectively, as well as Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in New York City. Pundits compulsively spend the weeks following the election reading into the results broader conclusions about national trends and hypothesizing about voters’ rationale. In that vein, I want to take a minute to consider what the election results mean for 2014 and 2016.

De Blasio’s win in New York City, while a sharp break from Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, should not be extended beyond the city limits. The election of a significantly more liberal mayor is actually a reversion to the mean rather than a trend in a new direction. Liberal Democrats have historically dominated the city’s elections, with the past two mayors being exceptions because of the city’s crime problem in the late 90s and an extraordinarily well-funded Bloomberg. Unlike the outcomes in New Jersey and Virginia, the New York mayoral race does not have broader implications.

Chris Christie’s landslide victory may also be less meaningful than some have argued. There is no denying that the strength of Christie’s personality has helped him win in a liberal state, but his victory came in a low turnout election and Christie had little coattails in the down-ballot races. The Republican win in the New Jersey race should be viewed as the state’s embrace of Christie, not the GOP more broadly. Christie’s deviations from the Republican Party, particularly his battles with Eric Cantor over relief funding for Hurricane Sandy, gave him further credibility with his New Jersey constituency. Maggie Haberman argues in Politico that 2016 is well suited for a Christie candidacy,  especially in comparison to a similarly situated Republican contender from past cycles, Rudy Giuliani. However, despite his seeming high with a landslide victory, polls have him significantly trailing Hilary Clinton in a potential 2016 Presidential matchup. Though still years out from 2016, Christie’s popularity in New Jersey does not currently extend to the national electorate.

In opposition to the Christie, McAuliffe’s victory was not the product of his personality, but rather somewhat in spite of it. McAuliffe was not helped by his public perception as too much of a glad-handing politician, and his ideology may be too liberal for the Virginia electorate. However, McAuliffe was able to pull of an unexpectedly-close victory in a rapidly liberalizing state. The Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, was viewed by many as being far too conservative, and suffered significantly from a lack of support from minorities and moderates. The state’s demographics are quickly changing, especially in the northern part of the state which is now a liberal bastion. Virginia is a prime example of traditionally conservative states turning ‘purple’ because of demographic changes, particularly growing Hispanic populations. The Virginia election should serve as another reminder to the RNC that particular attention needs to be paid to these demographic trends to ensure continuing GOP viability. Many have argued that McAuliffe was situated to win in a landslide had it not been for his close association with ObamaCare, which took a public opinion hit prior to the election due to its rough roll-out. While some have argued for the major impacts of the government shutdown and ObamaCare rollout on the campaigns trajectory, McAuliffe’s internal polling shows differently. The campaign showed him consistently up by a small margin, rather than suffering a big hit from the ACA implementation snafus. Once again, the election in Virginia cannot be broadly interpreted as a referendum on ObamaCare or the GOP’s role in the government shutdown given that McAuliffe’s victory margin was not significantly affected by the ACA rollout and the shutdown bump was only temporary.

While political junkies may want to get their fix by pouring over exit poll data from the major off-year elections, it is doubtful that much can be drawn from the results. Too much of variation in results is specific to the localities and candidates and are not part of broader national trends. The truth is, coming out of the 2013 elections, we can’t infer much about Chris Christie’s 2016 Presidential potential. All we know is that, if he runs, he will be doing so as the governor of New Jersey.

Is the GOP really in trouble?

by Gene Giannotta

Much has been made in the past month over the seemingly declining fortunes of the Republican Party. Polling in light of the shutdown brought little good news in terms of national favorability. Elections last week seemed to show the limits of tea party conservatism.

But reports of the Republican demise might be greatly exaggerated. We’ve been hearing such hyperbole for much of the past seven years, when a Democratic surge in 2006 captured Congress and presaged a dominant showing in 2008. The tea party wave of 2010 saw historic turnover in the House, but seemed more like a speed bump on the way to Obama’s reelection.

And then discontent over the shutdown and the victory for moderates in last week’s elections…the GOP seems in trouble heading into the midterms and then the 2016 presidential election.

But that narrative is built largely on anecdote. The numbers, as Pew’s Andrew Kohut points out, tell a much more nuanced story.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Kohut cites a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that while the GOP doesn’t have a high rating on its own, when compared with Democrats things look better. For example, “a plurality regard the Republicans as ‘better able to deal with the economy’ than the Democrats (44%-37%).” He also notes that

a growing number see the GOP as “better able to manage the government.” In December 2012, the Democratic Party held a 45%-36% advantage over the GOP as the party Americans viewed as better able to manage the government. By Oct. 15—in the midst of the shutdown and debt crisis—the Democratic lead on this measure disappeared: 42% said the Republican Party is better able to manage the federal government, compared with 39% who named the Democrats.

This is a really important point to keep in mind when looking at poll numbers. As I’ve said before, we don’t vote nationally. We don’t have a parliamentary system like Britain, where voters cast their ballots for a party and that party’s platform. We vote for individuals, tied to parties, but who have their own platforms and positions that often diverge from the national party’s in order to better match their target constituents.

That’s why, as Kohut says, “tea party candidates will carry a lot of [the shutdown] baggage, but they will mostly run in districts that endorse their point of view.” So it’s unlikely that the negative image many have of the GOP will translate to national electoral trouble.

But Kohut is off when he says that “Chris Christie’s sweeping victory” across various demographics in New Jersey, a “blue state,” is evidence “of the continued viability potential of the Republican brand, its problems notwithstanding.”

That’s partially true, but only because, as I said, voters vote for individuals and not parties. Christie is a unique individual who has personal appeal independent of his party. If voters cast a ballot by party and not person, it’s conceivable results would have been much different. But these personality effects likely have more impact on election outcomes as we go down the ballot and get more local. Whether Christie has the ability to translate his particular appeal in New Jersey to the other 49 states is yet to be seen.

The other thing to keep in mind is that our choices are almost always only between Democrats and Republicans. This is a consequence of the American system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. Third parties have difficulty gaining traction, and if they ever did, it would likely  just result in a new duopoly.

So even if voters are not too thrilled about Republicans in general, they make voting choices in the context of a competition with Democrats. And since we know that the number of truly independent voters is smaller than one might think, the choice for a particular voter is often between the candidate of their party or not voting at all.

All that is to say that while its prospects in any given election might wax and wane as a function of the tea party-moderate divide and how it plays out in a particular area, the Republican Party itself is not going anywhere.

The bottom line is that the numbers present a complex and ever-evolving picture. The key is to be able to dig down into them to understand what they mean at the state and local levels. Then we can put it all together and understand where the trends might take those elections and thus national politics.

Winning the Campaign for Online Activists

by Matt Sarge

Political activists have long been viewed as key intermediaries between political elites and the masses. Activists and political thinkers are at the forefront of issue evolution and ideological formation, setting the direction for political parties, policy makers, and eventually, average voters. In today’s new media age, bloggers and social media pundits play much the same role as traditional political activists and have more impact than most people think.

The intuition behind underestimating the influence of blogs and social media pundits is their relatively low readership. The argument commonly made is that even popular political blogs, like Erick Erickson’s conservative Red State blog, or the liberal Daily Kos, attract an audience that is minuscule compared to the size of the electorate as a whole. However, the flaw in this argument is that the audience of these blogs in a key group of readers. The audience may be small, but it is a critical and influential demographic.

Political bloggers and the people that read them are, for clear reasons, more politically-engaged than the average citizen. They are also the people most likely to vote, volunteer, donate money, and engage others in political discourse. Historically, it has been as important for politicians to have the support of a small, vocal, activist minority as the support of the ‘silent majority.’ While smart campaigns and policymakers do not ignore broad polling data, they also understand the importance of tracking the sentiment of constituents who call the office and paying attention to the demands of protesters because these activists show a willingness to go out of their way to express their politics. In a similar way, bloggers and social media pundits deserve the attention of campaigns because of their ability to influence a politically-active readership and their critical role in forming the infrastructure and financial base of campaigns.

In addition to the direct impact that blogs can have in influencing readers, they can also exert influence through their impact on traditional media. Among the key readership of political blogs are mainstream-media journalists. Because of blogs’ low cost of publishing, they are able to more quickly respond to news than many traditional news outlets. This allows blogs to set the tone for how stories are covered as well as what events are seen as news worthy. Mass attention by the blogosphere can take minor events on the campaign trail and turn them into major gaffes by attracting coverage from traditional news outlets. Bloggers can also draw attention to already available content and bring it to prominence. The blog Mother Jones published the infamous “forty-seven percent” video of Mitt Romney, turning a video that had been online for months into mainstream news that some pundits viewed as the effective end for the Romney campaign.

Though previously alluded to, the role that blogs and social media play in financing campaigns deserves additional attention. Certain blog sites, such as the conservative Red State and liberal Daily Kos become hubs for like-minded thinkers. In addition to the importance of these blogs as hubs of opinion that lead to mob mentality and in driving party ideology, they also serve as major online fundraising sources through large bundles of small contributions. Candidates are therefore incentivized to appeal to these more ideologically extreme groups that are active online because this is the basis of support that they rely on for their campaign infrastructure. As social media and blogs become increasingly ubiquitous, including amongst the older and more politically active generation, they will become increasingly indispensable tools for inexpensively reaching a large number of voters, and perhaps more importantly, a more easily mobilized constituency and group of potential donors and activists. Regardless of how the total readership numbers stack up, the type of people that frequent these political blog sites are critical targets for campaigns.

In order to be politically competitive, campaigns and policymakers are well-advised to focus on the social media strategy and efforts to engage bloggers. In addition to refocusing on their digital operation and microtargeting efforts after 2012, the GOP has also put new emphasis on social media. They hired former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett to be the RNC Chief Technology Officer in an attempt to make inroads amongst the under-thirty electorate, clearly understanding the importance of social media.

Both the party organizations and individual candidates need to understand the increasingly influential role that blogs play in politics. The President recently lashed out at bloggers who had picked apart Healthcare.gov and the glitches that came with the ObamaCare rollout, knowing that what they published would have a measurable impact on the opinions of the most politically-active voters. To cultivate activists who are willing to support their campaign and convince others, political campaigns must focus on engendering the support of bloggers and monitoring the sentiment on social media.

Why Trust in Government Matters

by Matt Sarge

To follow up on Gene’s recent post about declining trust in government Putting “Trust in Government” in Context, I wanted to make a brief comment about the potentially significant implications of such a decline. In addition to making government broadly less efficient and effective, low government trust has a disproportionate impact on the ability to pass progressive policies.

Marc Hetherington’s book, Why Trust Matters, makes a strong case that the decline in government trust since its peak in the early 1960s has led to a decline in policy liberalism. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society political agenda, with its implementation of large programs to help the poor and racial minorities, has been unmatched in recent decades. The last President to pass significant ‘progressive’ policies was in fact a Republican — Richard Nixon.

Government policies in which the benefit is not immediate or tangible, or where there is perceived risk, require public trust in government. Programs like welfare that only directly benefit a minority of citizens with the presumption that helping this group will benefit the nation overall, is seen as risky — much like programs with future benefits such as climate change legislation. It is therefore no surprise that re-distributive programs like welfare and food stamps have faced declining support in recent decades, while programs like social security (where most Americans will at some point be getting tangible checks in the mail) have remained relatively impervious to declines in favorability. 

Declining government trust may explain the major backlash to ObamaCare, which is actually relatively moderate in nature, as well as the failure to push through cap-and-trade legislation. Declining government trust should not just be viewed as an effect of congressional gridlock, but also as a potential obstacle to progressive government policy.

HealthCare.gov & the F-35

by Gene Giannotta

I wrote about some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the sputtering launch of HealthCare.gov, most of which make a problematic comparison to the private sector. Over at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Lydia DePillis makes a more apt analogy, showing how the insurance marketplace web site’s development is similar (and different) to that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

That famously inept Defense Department boondoggle is a better place to look for lessons on a broken procurement system that extends far beyond building web portals. Some of the issues DePillis cites: limited competition for the contracts, a scale that defies the possibility of “starting over,” and uncertain costs. There are also too many cooks in the kitchen on these projects, and not much in the way of adequate, integrative oversight:

It’s difficult to build a house when the blueprints keep changing. And that’s exactly what happened to both the F-35 and HealthCare.gov.

The F-35, after all, not only had to satisfy three branches of the military — it also had to work for the handful of U.S. allies that would also be placing orders for the planes. Year by year, politicians in countries like Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia and Norway would question aspects of the design, and make noises about buying fewer of them. The endless design changes added tremendous complexity, turning what was supposed to be a lightweight, next-generation fighter into a compromise vehicle with problems like an engine too heavy for the Navy to carry.

The same was true of HealthCare.gov, which was built under the cloud of an election and a Supreme Court decision that would determine whether it even got implemented, not to mention a political air war that delayed specifications until just a few months before the insurance exchange was supposed to launch. Late-stage changes in the specs of a system that’s already monstrously complex make a hard job nearly impossible.

She does point out differences, including costs (the F-35 is a far more expensive product), deadlines (HealthCare.gov had a hard deadline for being ready), and the obvious differences in building a Web site versus a fighter jet. But there’s another difference. The insurance exchange acts as a portal, a place for consumers to access information that ties into the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. It’s a tool, like the F-35, but probably less prone to becoming obsolete any time soon. The Joint Strike Fighter, on the other hand?

This is not the kind of thing one likes to see happening 19 years after the creation of the Joint Strike Fighter program and 11 years after Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing for the U.S. contract. The F-35 looks a lot like the second coming of the B-2 bomber; a high-tech military megaproject on which billions are gambled, and that ends up being a half-obsolete curio by the time all the kinks are worked out. The B-2 was designed for an era of strategic bombing in wars between superpowers; when the Cold War ended and an era of asymmetric warfare began, it was left with little justification, and the fleet has flown few sorties, considering its expense.

Putting “Trust in Government” in Context

by Gene Giannotta

Following the shutdown, Pew released this disheartening tidbit: the public’s trust in the federal government “near[ed] record low.”  Only 19% of respondents saying they trusted the government. That’s interesting, but is it a big deal?

Here’s a great graphic from Pew showing the numbers over time (click here for their interactive version):

Let’s dig into some of what this means:

  • Only once since 1973 - forty years - has more than half the public expressed trust in government: immediately after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when that number hit 60% but then dropped again pretty quickly.

  • In that same period, there have only been a couple isolated periods of over 40% of the public trusting the government: 1984-89, 1991, and 2000-03.

    • The first period, in the Eighties, was Reagan’s second term as president and into George H.W. Bush’s first, which also coincides with the collapse of the Communist East. But the polls that make up Pew’s trend graphic are all over the place, showing trust numbers from the mid-30s to mid-40s during this time.

    • The second period coincides with the First Gulf War, a good example of the rally-round-the-flag effect, but even this was pretty short-lived and didn’t break 50%.

    • The third period lines up with the end of the economically-strong 90s and Clinton tenure as well as the government response to the 9/11/01 attacks.

  • Spun another way, for sixteen of those 40 years, less than 30% of the country trusted the government. And for 31 of those 40 years, or 3/4 of the time since the early 1970s, less than 40% of the country trusted the government!

  • The Pew trend line only goes back to 1958, which is when the American National Election Study first asked the “trust” question. After the high point of the high 70s in 1964, the trend noticeably declines over the next five decades. In fact, the high points just seem to be isolated spikes in an otherwise clear downward trend. Since we don’t have data before 1958, we don’t really know how people felt about the government before then and it’s not really fair to imply that the 19% figure is a major historical anomaly - or at least, that should be qualified as “historical” meaning just the past five-and-a-half decades. Perhaps the highs in the late ’50s and early ’60s were the anomalies and the decline is a correction? Maybe the actual number of people in the U.S. population who trust the government has been pretty low throughout its history? We don’t really know.

  • Republican trust in government seems far more volatile, correlated with the partisan identification of the president. Big spikes during GOP presidencies, with big dips during Democratic.

  • But what about the possibility that this number means a big shakeup in Congress next year?

    • Government trust reached its high point in 1964, when 53 incumbents lost their seats - the highest number until 2010’s Republican wave cost 69 incumbents their seats at a time when trust in government was about the same as today - 22%. Note that the 1964 election was a landslide for the Democrats, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous year.

    • But the ‘06, ‘08, and ‘12 House elections saw roughly similar numbers of incumbent losses as 1990, 1996, and the 1970s, when trust was higher.

    • There does seem to be a correlation since 1980. But it’s all a matter of degree - 2010’s level of trust was similar to 1990, 1992, 1994, 1998, and all of the elections since 2008, but in only three of those did more than 30 lose their seats. In 1990, with 25% trust, only 16 lost their seats, and in 1998 when only 24% of the country trusted the government, there were only 7 incumbent losses! And that was during the unpopular impeachment of Bill Clinton!

In other words, don’t read too much into this one number. It’s not good, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a sea change in how the public views its government. It would be more accurate to say that discontent and distrust are the norms, rather than the newsworthy exceptions.

How to Criticize Obamacare Without Really Trying

by Gene Giannotta

The Obamacare rollout has been a study in how not to introduce a major web service to the world. From reports of the debacle, there seemed to be a lack of proper coordination  as well as adequate testing. For a system so complex, that was obviously a recipe for disaster.

But while much of the rhetorical whirlwind out of Washington has centered around the question of who’s to blame for the mess, the “who” is largely besides the point. The question we should be asking is why. Just like the other October failure of government - the shutdown - the reasons for HealthCare.gov not working are not a simple matter of finding a person or two who screwed up and firing them, as cathartic as that might be for politicians and others looking for symbolism rather than solutions.

Any entity as large as the federal government, with as complicated a system of intertwining bureaucracies and competing interests both within that network as well as outside, in the realm of public opinion and congressional oversight, is probably more likely to end up with some wires crossed when a project as massive and high-profile as HealthCare.gov goes live.

After all, this isn’t the only botched IT project the federal government has presided over. The Post’s Walter Pincus, a longtime observer of the national security complex, pointed to a recent example under the Defense Department’s purview:

In this case, it was the Air Force. In 2005 it began a program designed to integrate into one system about 240 outdated computer networks at 600 locations that didn’t communicate with each other. It was to manage things such as equipment inventories, contracting, financial administration and personnel assignments.

The Air Force first estimated that the Expeditionary Combat Support System would cost $5.2 billion. On Nov. 14, 2012, it said it was canceling ECSS after spending up to $1.03 billion. The system “has not yielded any significant military capability,” according to an Air Force statement e-mailed to reporters. The Air Force estimated it would need $1.1 billion more to complete one-quarter of the originally designed program. Even so, it would not be ready until 2020.


So imagine if the Obama Administration had delayed the opening of the site until it was “ready.” In that alternate reality, we might be seeing hearings full of politicians wondering where the heck it is…in 2016.

Big bureaucratic entities, whether the federal government or private corporations, tend to face many of these kinds of issues. And in the case of the ACA, implementation requires federal, state, and private organizations all working together, with the added scrutiny of hyper-partisan politicians in Congress waiting to pounce on any slip-up as a sign of its fated implosion.

So in many ways, when commentators and critics point out HealthCare.gov’s flaws, they miss the real phenomenon we should be focusing on.

Just like the shutdown, the Obamacare rollout lays bare the simple fact that unlike a lean startup or small businesses that can afford to wait to release their product when it’s “ready,” government is dictated by political forces that can be far less patient or forgiving. To be sure, politics abounds in private industry as well. The business world is as rife with tensions between competing interests and personalities as the world of governments. But the ACA combines those two atmospheres together to create a uniquely problematic mess.

Consider these points, from Ezra Klein, when he addressed Republican demand for someone to point the finger at:

How about Senate Republicans who tried to intimidate Sebelius out of using existing HHS funds to implement Obamacare? “Would you describe the authority under which you believe you have the ability to conduct such transfers?” Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded at one hearing. It’s difficult to imagine the size of the disaster if Sebelius hadn’t moved those funds.

How about congressional Republicans who refuse to permit the packages of technical fixes and tweaks that laws of this size routinely require?

How about Republican governors who told the Obama administration they absolutely had to be left to build their own health-care exchanges — you’ll remember that the House Democrats’ health-care plan included a single, national exchange — and then refused to build, leaving the construction of 34 insurance marketplaces up to HHS?

Now, this isn’t meant to pin the blame on the GOP, but rather to point out that Obamacare’s implementation - including the construction and reliability of the exchange web sites - hinges on the same sort of politicking that has made it impossible to craft long-term budgets and nearly brought the United States to the brink of default on multiple occasions over the past couple years.

But that also isn’t meant as an indictment of government-run projects, either. After all, it didn’t work out too well when the DoD outsourced the “systems integrator” role on several of its own projects.

TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, meanwhile, has plenty of criticisms, one which gets to the heart of my point about politics:

The company hired to build HealthCare.gov’s failing database, CGI Global, is an established government contractor (established enough to have actually lobbied Congress on the Affordable Care Act). Even though Canada had previously fired the firm for a botched $46.2 million medical registry system in 2011, CGI Global was still contracted to the build the technical keystone of the U.S. healthcare law.

“I think procurement in the federal government is broken. It favors incumbents and the status quo over the lean start-ups in terms of its archaic procurement rules and regulations,” Vivek Kundra, former U.S. chief information officer, told The Washingtonian.

Startups simply don’t have the knowhow to get around the oddly complicated procurement rules—or the congressional ties to curry favor. As a result, a mediocre contractor charged an astounding $93 million for a botched job.

Yes, but how to “fix” the system? Those large contractors, relying so much on government dollars, won’t just let go of their clout without a fight. And if smaller firms and start-ups could gain access to a more competitive procurement system, the results probably won’t be immune to the same logic of the existing reality. The very nature of competition (and rational human behavior) means that once one reaches the goal, they’re likely to try to hang on, preferably with the least amount of effort (i.e., the least costly route).

Evan Burfield, co-founder of DC startup incubator 1776 and formerly in charge of the company tasked with creating Recovery.gov, was also critical of the procurement system, in an op-ed this week. But while he holds up Recovery.gov as an exemplar of how government can work with startups on smart, effective web site projects, it was not without criticisms in its early days.

Burfield concludes by saying:

The best result that could come from the attention on HealthCare.gov is if Congress seeks to reform how the government procures IT contracts. Americans of all parties want an effective government that costs taxpayers less. Procurement reform would be a win for all of us.

A few weeks ago, I referred to “collective action problems” when discussing the politics of the shutdown and whether it was a “rational” outcome:

Essentially, it means that individuals, by pursuing their own self-interest, will in turn collectively harm the good the group as a whole. For example, lots of individuals thinking “well, what I do won’t make that big an impact, so what the heck” and going ahead with bad investments or irresponsibly getting rid of waste could end up causing terrible effects on the economy or the environment.

What this means is that individual rationality does not necessarily translate to social, or group, rationality. It might be in my best interest (benefits outweigh the cost, and hence “rational”) to litter, or waste a negligible amount of money (to me) on a bad financial bet. But taken together, all of those bad bets and tossed wrappers pile up.

The same logic can apply to procurement. After all, one man’s “cronyism” is another man’s “sticking up for my constituent.” Or fundraiser, as the case may be. The point is that Congress, as a body of 535 individuals with separate incentives, policy ideas, and interests, probably won’t use this moment as an excuse to streamline a process that probably works pretty well for each individual. Contractors know how to divvy up their processes to align what’s good for them with what is good for multiple members of Congress. The classic examples are in Defense contracting, but they exist everywhere.

In other words, we may agree with one part of the problem but the processes involved are so complex that they defy the kinds of easy solutions those diagnoses imply. But we prefer simplicity, so answers that make things sound easy are far more palatable. Like saying the administration should have relied more on startups, a more competitive contracting system, a more centralized approach, or some combination of these.

Or comparing Obama’s government with Obama’s campaign. My Votifi colleague Matt Sarge touched on this earlier this week, saying, “The consensus seems to be that the ACA website is an undertaking unrivaled by anything attempted on the campaign trail.”

The Post’s Brian Fung also tackled this problematic comparison:

Yet political campaigns are geared to do one thing, and that’s to win. Everybody who’s involved in a campaign shares a common interest, and to the extent that their tasks vary, staffers and volunteers nevertheless operate as a team. As the president’s critics often point out, however, governing is different from politicking. All agencies are supposed to work toward the common goal of providing for the public’s welfare. In reality, it’s a messy landscape of cross-cutting political interests and battles over pride and budgets. That makes coordination a lot more difficult. Even when the agencies themselves have agreed to cooperate, their infrastructure might not.

It’s a good sign that we all agree on the need for a more agile, responsive, and coherent process when it comes to government projects generally and contracting in particular. But that doesn’t mean we’ll agree on how to get there. And so maybe we can get those processes more agile, responsive, and coherent, but in order to do so we’ll have to make peace with the fact that they - and the system they exist within - will continue to be annoyingly imperfect and inherently complex.


by Matt Sarge

The GOP is turning its strategy toward a year-round operation to engage broad swaths of the electorate. As argued in a previous post on the GOP’s digital disadvantage, successful campaign infrastructure can’t be built in the final months before a campaign, no matter how much money you’ve stockpiled. The GOP and Romney campaigns learned their lesson in 2012, trying to play catch-up with the Obama campaign’s finely tuned digital operation. This long-term approach to building a political base and campaign operation that can be utilized by whoever the party’s nominees are is the necessary approach if the Republicans want to be competitive in the next election cycle and beyond.

Tech Savvy Campaign Obama vs Tech Illiterate Administration

by Matt Sarge

With the recent trials and tribulations of the healthcare.gov website, many have wondered how the same President who revolutionized the use of technology in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns could preside over such a technological failure in the ObamaCare roll-out. 

In addressing the healthcare.gov’s failures, Obama expressed anger with the bloggers who have been picking apart the website’s problems — many of the same bloggers that were major Obama advocates on the campaign trail and were crucial to the campaign’s digital media strategy. 

The Return of Harper Reed

Recent Twitter exchanges with Harper Reed, the CTO of the Obama campaign, have led to calls for the White House to bring in their campaign tech gurus to fix the website. However, Reed argued via Twitter:

"The ‘secret’ here is that the problems are not about tech at all. It is about procurement. I can’t fix that with my tech chops or my team."

While it may seem difficult to reconcile the tech savvy Obama campaign with the technological failures on the ObamaCare website, the veterans of the 2012 OFA team do not seem to see any real contradiction  The consensus seems to be that the ACA website is an undertaking unrivaled by anything attempted on the campaign trail. As Tim Murphy said of Harper Reed, “Even Reed’s formidable code-wrangling skills can’t solve every problem under the sun.”